In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
With the holiday season firmly upon us, I figured it would be appropriate to watch a couple Christmas comedies I’ve never seen. This week, 1988’s Scrooged. I should make the distinction that this isn’t really a classic comedy, just a Christmas comedy, and for good reason. Also worth mentioning is the poster for the film, which shows Bill Murray with a Bobcat Goldthwait haircut, which is awesome because Bobcat Goldthwait is in the movie, without a Bobcat Goldthwait haircut. Big win for the movie right off the bat. But I digress.
I’m about to get real Christmasy here in a couple paragraphs, so I’ll get some solid comedy thoughts out before this article strays into more yuletide territory.
First, Bill Murray is funny, but honestly miscast – or at least misdirected. His is not an acting style well suited to shouting, crying, and having big, broad epiphanies. He’s a guy who is at his best when he is allowed to be subtle, and his revelations hit so much harder in roles where he’s allowed to just barely show it (the end of The Life Aquatic comes to mind, which, say what you will about the rest of the film, is a near-perfect moment for him). Murray once said that he wears a character like a trenchcoat, and Frank Cross is clearly a trenchcoat that is much more brightly colored than Murray is comfortable wearing. You can actually see him not committing, and in a role which requires so much screaming, running, and physical comedy, it’s sort of distracting. It puts into perspective what a better role Phil Connors is for him – he’s got the same misanthropic detachment and cynicism, but without the jumping and whooping he’s so clearly not enjoying here. He does pull it off, but just barely, and you’re left feeling that if they’d written a more compatible part for him (or cast a more compatible comedian), a lot more of the jokes would hit.
The jokes themselves are often really good. There’s a lot of sketch-comedy weirdness and fun character games, like Murray’s banter with his secretary and the homeless people at the shelter, but ultimately it’s the story that keeps the elements that work from feeling like a cohesive whole.
Because, at the risk of abandoning my purpose here for a minute, what frustrates me the most about this movie isn’t the comedy – that’s fine, for what it is – it’s the execution. This is a pretty insulting retelling of A Christmas Carol, isn’t it? Here you have a guy who’s such a cynical, morally bankrupt prick he adds nudity, violence and sensationalism to his version of A Christmas Carol, but the movie itself is a version of the same story, with nudity, violence and sensationalism. Why let the ghosts of Christmas past and present be benevolent, wistful looks into what was and is when you can have them be foulmouthed, violent and ugly? Why let the grim specter of death speak for itself when you can have a drunk, murderous Bobcat Goldthwait with a shotgun and Bill Murray burning alive in a coffin? And the real problem is that there’s no irony there, no acceptance of the fact that stunt casting Murray as Scrooge isn’t all that different from stunt casting Buddy Hackett as Scrooge (which, if you haven’t seen it, they do in the film), or that Tiny Tim the poor kid from Harlem with an ambiguous psychological won’t-speak malady isn’t a much better update than Mary Lou Retton dropping her crutches and doing a series of handsprings (which they also do).
The only real difference is that the fake version is laughable and silly, and the larger version – the film itself, sort of gets hoisted on its own festive petard, by failing to clearly distinguish itself from the flashy, pandering primetime TV literature-butchery it’s trying to lampoon. It’s a film wherein people miss the point of A Christmas Carol which itself completely misses the point of A Christmas Carol. The only true indication of redemption, and the only bit which really does justice to the source material, is Murray’s big monologue at the end, which is the best moment in the film, but clearly improvised. Nothing wrong with that per se, but not only does it have a spark that’s missing from the rest of the film, the fact that it isn’t even part of the script is a little meta-disappointing. Didn’t they care enough to write down the revelation this guy had?
It’s a shame. You’ve got great actors, some really solid jokes and a great way to pay off everything at the end – why waste an hour and a half telling the most unsavory, slimy, one-dimensional version of the story you can muster?
So, does Scrooged hold up? Well, it’s sort of a mess, and I think it was in 1988 too. Most of the comedy still works, but as a story it most certainly doesn’t hold up as well as the classic it’s retelling. It seems a little off-topic for me to have disliked Scrooged not because of the comedy but because it’s a poor adaptation of a story I think has much more substance than it is given here. But that’s just the kind of columnist I am, damn it. It’s Christmas, for crying out loud. I love Christmas, and I love A Christmas Carol. Enough that I think this movie falls short on heaps of wasted potential. Does that make me a scrooge?
Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.