Second Union

Second Union

REVIEW: Scrooged (1988)

“The bitch hit me with a toaster!”

Scrooged, 1988 (Bill Murray) Paramount Pictures

There’s something about Scrooged that just gets to me, irritates me, annoys me. It’s an obnoxious, mean-spirited, cynical exercise about “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men,” made by obnoxious, mean-spirited, cynical multi-millionaires that has no place either as a film, or as a holiday treat/extravaganza. Extravaganza. Is that a real word? It sounds made up. Like “zesty” when referring to ranch dressing. Zesty Ranch Dressing!

There’s something about Scrooged that I like, that I love, that I enjoy. Maybe it has something to do with that cynicism I noted. I can’t believe I have ambiguity about Scrooged! How bizarre. Every time I look around, it’s in my face! Remember that song? I’d rather listen to “How Bizarre” a hundred times than have to stomach “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” one more time. I don’t have anything against Annie Lennox or Al Green. I love them, as a matter of fact, but the popular cover of the classic Jackie DeShannon song inserted into a 1988 re-imagining of the Dickens Christmas Carol made me taste day-old egg nog bile. Sorry. Somebody had to say it.

I hate this movie, and I love this movie. I have to paraphrase my friend Mark Jeacoma when he described 1941, Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous big-budget war comedy, as an “enormous pile of cocaine.” Scrooged is an enormous pile of cocaine with a little crack and angel dust mixed in. This movie makes you crazy. There’s definitely a contact high even before Lew Hayward, Frank’s former boss (the Jacob Marley analog), shows up as a golf-playing corpse to warn Frank of his imminent adventure.

Bill Murray’s Frank Cross is a high-powered television network executive on the verge of premiering his live broadcast of the Dickens classic. Remember, this was decades before networks started producing live broadcasts of musicals during the holiday season. Son-of-a-bitch! Scrooged was ahead of its time! Cross is a bastard. He fires Bob-“cratchit” Goldthwait just for offering prudent criticism into his unsettling promotional pieces for the production.

He makes his Bob-cratchit assistant Alfre Woodard work overtime. It seems like the world is his Bob Cratchit, except for cat-obsessed boss Robert Mitchum and underling kiss-up John Glover. Glover is there to remind Cross that he can be easily replaced. Ebenezer Scrooge exists to not have a boss. He’s an entity and a force of nature. He’s unstoppable, which is why the three ghosts are required to remind him of his humanity. If Frank Cross is scared of the workaday financial and social anxieties that plague us all in our everyday lives, then he isn’t fully in control of the people around him, therefore (knowing his limitations) he doesn’t need or require ghosts to remind him of his humanity.

What we do get is Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), the lone shining beacon of his past. She’s a girlfriend he once had back in the late ’60s when Frank had slightly longer hair. Wouldn’t that have been twenty years before, even though the actors don’t look like they’ve aged a day? She wants to get together and smoke weed with their friends, but Frank sniffs out an opportunity for job advancement. Being a woman, she’s obsessed with the idea of controlling the man in her life, and it really doesn’t matter that a promotion would mean more money for their fledgling family and possibly an opportunity for her to give back to her community, because it’s all about control.

Claire was altruistic and giving, and she still is! Even in the heartless ’80s. She runs a shelter or something, although they don’t do a great job at keeping their denizens from freezing to death in the unforgiving Manhattan winter (though, as we know, we don’t get into bitter cold in New York until the end of January). It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that homeless indigent Michael J. Pollard freezes Jack Torrance-style under a subway grate (in creepy fashion, with a smile on his frozen face, holding a pocket watch). It doesn’t matter because … it’s the thought that counts … It’s the thought that counts. That’s the true mission statement of Scrooged.

As Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike and the Bots once conjectured while screening the classic movie, Jack Frost: “Speculating about doing good deeds is the same as doing good deeds.” This is lip service for the middle-class crowd the movie was marketed to while mocking Cross’ wealth and presumed power. The sick joke of it is that the middle class can’t afford to mock or be mocked because they might lose their jobs. The rich don’t have to care. Cross has mutual funds and investments he can always fall back on. In New York City, fortunes can change overnight … for the middle class, that is.

How do we know Pollard’s character wasn’t just another middle-class schlub on the IRT before life and misfortune undercut him and put him out on the street? People who don’t live here don’t understand. These are things you don’t want to think about over the holiday season. Scrooge doesn’t play in 1980s New York any more than it plays in 2021 New York. Scrooged premiered precisely 18 days before I, as a strapping 16-year-old was put out into the street and made homeless. This anti-capitalist movie was written by multi-millionaires. Does not compute! David Johansen’s Ghost of Christmas Past is instrumental in getting Cross back together with Claire. She actually comes to the studio to see Frank but is once again turned off by his callous greed and cynicism.

Claire leaves and then Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present (easily the best part of the movie) shows up to make Frank feel guilty for treating his younger brother (real-life younger brother John “Moving Violations” Murray) and Alfre like crap. Alfre, it turns out, has a son who went mute the day his father died. He’s the Tiny Tim analog of the piece, and you pretty much know what’s going to happen to him by movie’s end.

The Ghost of Christmas Future reveals not only that Frank has died (we saw that coming even if Frank didn’t) but Claire has finally surrendered to her bitterness, and that, interestingly, might be what changes Frank. What happens next could be interpreted as either an awesome and shocking epiphany about basic human kindness or … a complete and total emotional breakdown. Frank crashes his live production (narrated by John Houseman, starring Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, and featuring Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim) and proceeds to go on a long, loony rant about love and charity, or something.

This is one of the most unintentionally disturbing scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a movie purported to be a comedy. The big problems are the casting of Bill Murray and the direction by Richard Donner. I could buy the sarcastic wise-ass attempting to charm everybody around him, but not this Frank Cross creature. His reversal at the end is forced, and you don’t really feel like he’s earned it, nor do you feel he even deserves either his awakening or his penance. This is supposed to be a comedy, but it deals too much with dark karma and never seeks a level of understanding to which the audience can relate. Scrooged is a beautifully produced train wreck. God bless us, Everyone!

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