December 23, 2010

Scrooged looks suspiciously like the big movie disaster of the latter part of this year.

It’s a big-budget package with a major star, Bill Murray, and an attractive concept: As the title suggests, this is a modern version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But this impressive package might have appeared to have too much going for it, because nobody seems to have gotten around to making a movie to go with the package. The package does have Bill Murray, who is one of the great comic actors of our time, in his first starring role since his 1984 tandem of Ghostbusters and The Razor’s Edge. But Murray is on his own here, heroically trying to make stiff lines sound funny, a manic cheerleader trying to get the crowd worked up when his team is losing by 50 points.

The screenplay is by Mitch Glazer and former “Saturday Night Live” sicko Michael O’Donoghue. It begins well, with some ferocious TV satire, as network president Murray unveils his offerings for Yuletide programming: a terrorist movie called The Night the Reindeer Died, “Robert Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas,” featuring the singer in a swamp, and a live production of Scrooge, starring Buddy Hackett, with Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim.

Murray’s a Scrooge himself, a greedy climber who fires one of his executives (Bobcat Goldthwait) just before the holiday and forces his secretary (Alfre Woodard) to work late on Christmas Eve. But in the midst of his meanness, he’s visited by a former associate (John Forsythe), who is now dead and residing below. The ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Present (Carol Kane), and Future cannot be far away.

There are some funny bits in the movie, as when Murray sees supernatural visions while lunching with his unamused boss (Robert Mitchum). But there are too many long stretches between the good parts, and the ghostly visits are uninspired (Carol Kane’s role relies on the single, and irrelevant, joke of beating Murray to a pulp).

Meanwhile, Murray attempts to rekindle an old romance with a social worker (Karen Allen), who has given her life to helping others. But when he visits her in the soup kitchen she runs, he’s dismayed by the inefficiency; he suggest she fire the tireless volunteers: “They’re incompetent!”

Director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) doesn’t seem to have much feel for comedy. He shoots a disproportionate amount of the movie in close-up, an approach that emphasizes the pockmarks on Murray’s face and limits the comedian’s loosey-goosey, improvisational physicality. When in doubt, which appears to be frequently, Donner relies on Murray to scream a line reading as loudly as possible.

For some reason, at the happy ending, someone decided that the entire cast should sing to the audience. It makes for one of the screwiest finales in recent memory, a smiley-face button tacked on to an otherwise appropriately nasty movie. Murray’s old film critic from “Saturday Night Live” would’ve trashed it.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Scrooged has a following, I guess especially among people who grew up with it. When it comes to sideways showbiz-inflected adaptations of Dickens, I’ll take Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol every time. I sort of resent Murray for being so little in movies in the 1980s; after Stripes, he could have done anything, but his actual output is extremely slim. He came across as so gloriously free and untethered back then – a shambling monument to the subversive impulse – and it would’ve been great to have seen him more. Unless the movies were like Scrooged, in which case maybe he was right.