Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1988)

12. Scrooged

In 1987, Richard Donner directed a Christmas classic, that is a regular presence on everyone’s TV each December and truly sums up everything the season is about. I am, of course, talking about “Lethal Weapon.” Following his established tendency to follow an action flick with a comedy, he next made “Scrooged.” The film paired Donner with maybe the biggest comedy star of the eighties, Bill Murray. The tagline on the poster even referenced “Ghostbusters.” The actor, director, and screenwriters Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue were determined to put their own stamp on the often told Dickensian story. The result is probably the most unhinged Christmas movie this side of “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”

Frank Cross is the head executive at television station, IBC. Despite prepping a live broadcast of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which includes Mary Lou Retton and the Solid Gold Dancers for some reason, Cross has no appreciation for Christmas itself. He’s a cynical, cold-hearted man, who buys his brother a towel for Christmas, despite being loaded. His shallowness attracts the attention of four ghosts. They intend to show him his past, present, and future. Cross confronts his childhood, failed relationships, employee’s situations, and the inevitable result of his current selfish path.

“A Christmas Carol” has been adapted so many times that a new version has to do something different to really stand out. “Scrooged” has no problem with the latter requirement. Opening with a movie-within-the-movie that features Santa Claus and Lee Majors fighting off terrorists with machine guns, “Scrooged” only escalates in absurdity from there. The commercial for “A Christmas Carol” that Cross cooks up features exploding airplanes, a syringe filled with heroine, and a shotgun being shot directly into the camera. This is a Christmas movie that features several blows to the crotch, toaster assisted battery, jokes about nipples, and a homeless man freezing to death. If the goal was to create a “Christmas Carol” adaptation unlike any other, “Scrooged” certainly succeed at that.

However, the question has to be asked: Is this strategy funny? Like Richard Donner’s previous comedies, “The Toy” and “The Goonies,” the comedy in the film can be rather shrill. This is best emphasized during a long sequence near the end where Bobcat Goldwaith, at his most wheezy and manic, attempts to shoot Murray with a shotgun. Or the middle section involving the Ghost of Christmas Present, which features Carol Kane beating the shit out of Bill. The fighting stretches far pass the point of comedic slapstick into outright mean-spirited abuse. The desire to make the most twisted Christmas movie possible resulted in “Scrooged” being almost too intensely misanthropic for its own good.

However, unlike the dispiriting lows of “The Toy,” “Scrooged” stars a fully committed Bill Murray. Murray begins the film playing a massive asshole. While Murray has played his share of assholes over the years, Frank Cross is in a league of his own. When presented with the news that his shocking TV ad gave an old woman a heart attack, he reacts with joy. In the course of the movie, he destroys a film set three times and indirectly causes the same woman repeated injuries. By the last reel, when Murray directly talks to the audience in a manic plea for the Christmas spirit, the audience begins to wonder how much coke was in Bill’s dressing room that day. Despite the extravagance of the material, Murray’s comedic glee timing still centers the movie. When conversing with homeless folks or flirting with an ex-girlfriend, Murray’s sardonic charm still shines.

“A Christmas Carol” is already a ghost story. “Scrooged” pushes the ghostly element so far that the movie practically enters the realm of horror/comedy. Before being greeted by the three ghosts, Cross naturally meets the ghost of a departed mentor. Instead of Robert Marley, it’s Lew Haywood, played by John Forsythe. Haywood appears as a green-skined zombie in a Hawaiian t-shirt. Murray shoots the ghost full of bullets, causing liquor to pour from the holes. A mouse crawls out Lew’s head, a series of golf balls dropping out behind it. It’s a grotesque moment with few laughs inside it, aside from Murray’s frenzied reaction. I’m having a little trouble figuring out if the movie was going for laughs or scares. The contrasts between the attempts at humor and horror manages to make both elements creepier.

Once the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up, “Scrooged” begins to follow Dickens outline a little more closely. The Ghost of Christmas Past appears as a cab driver, always chomping on a cigar. To match Cross’ obnoxiousness, the Ghost is equally vulgar and nasty. David Johansen plays the part with a lot of boozy, smokey glee. The Past segments represents “Scrooged” at its most bittersweet. We see Cross as a kid, suffering petty abuse at his asshole dad. Or how he met the love of his life before loosing her due to pursuing his career. These moments can be funny, such as when Murray thumbs through the Karma Sutra or dresses up as a cartoon dog. Yet there’s an undercurrent of sadness that makes them more meaningful.

The sequence devoted to the Ghost of Christmas Present might be the weakest part of “Scrooged.” Carol Kane is great at the ghost, balancing her squeaky voice and sweet demeanor against the character’s mean-spirited actions. However, as previously discussed, the slapstick comedy goes too far. That isn’t the only reason why I dislike this sequence. Here, the focus shifts too Cross’ secretary. She has a young son who doesn’t speak following his father’s death, the boy becoming the movie’s Tiny Tim stand in. This sequence also introduces Cross’ brother, played by real life Murray sibling Joel. Considering we haven’t meet the brother before this moment, the audience isn’t as invested. Even then, there’s some surprisingly emotional set-ups. Such as Murray discovering the frozen corpse of a homeless he previously met. Or Cross looking at a photo of himself and his brother, sadly smiling to himself.

The last act of any version of “A Christmas Carol” inevitably takes a slow slide into creepiness. Even the Muppet version has Scrooge weeping upon his own grave. Considering “Scrooged” is already kind of creepy, it expectedly goes even more nuts during this scene. Murray spends most of the sequence inside an elevator. The camera jitters around, creating an unnerving, disquieting mood. The Ghost of Christmas Future has a television monitor face – perhaps reflecting Cross’ own career? – that shows static-y images of skulls and dissected brains. Beneath his Grim Reaper rob, the ghost has a trio of shrieking demons. Moreover, the Future scenes feature some seriously moody set designs. The angles are jagged, gray scale, and severe. The camerawork features many close-ups on actor’s faces and POV shots, further emphasizes the dream like tone. By the end, Murray is set inside a flaming casket, forced to face his loveless death. The laughs here are only of the darkest variety, as “Scrooged” plunges into its most fatalistic moments.

The show clearly belongs to Murray but “Scrooged” does make room for some solid supporting players. Karen Allen plays Claire, Frank’s lost girlfriend. Allen’s wide-eyed charm and girl-next-door cuteness makes her the perfect foil to Frank’s cynicism. She’s absolutely enchanting and you can see why Cross would regret leaving her all these years. Bobcat Goldthwait grows more unhinged as the movie progresses, beginning reasonably and being a total nutcase by the end. John Glover is entertainingly smug as the executive destined to replace Frank while Robert Mitchum brings some amusing dryness to the part of Cross’ clueless boss. His monologue about cats watching TV is especially funny. I also like Alfre Woodard as Frank’s long suffering secretary, the woman who seems to have the last link to her boss’ long since atrophied humanity.

The sickest joke of “Scrooged” can be seen in its setting. The shift of the Ebenezer role from a money-lender to a television executive didn’t happen just because Hollywood loves to set stories in the entertainment industry. Instead, the film makes the cruel observation that a Scrooge figure would be great in TV. Someone ruthlessly focused only on profits is an ideal businessman. Charity has no place in television. When Frank Cross wins back his soul at the end, it’s not just triumphant for him. His manic glee on Christmas night wins over the people around him too, infecting everyone in the cruel business with a love for their fellow man.

Danny Elfman, still a relative newcomer to doing music for movies at the time, composed the score for “Scrooged.” And, holy cow, is it an Elfman score. A woman’s choir, softly chanting “la la la,” provides the meat of the main theme. They’re backed up by repetitive strings, sweeping cords, and impish horns. Yes, there are jaunty tubas. An untrained ear could be forgiven for assuming the music is from a Tim Burton movie. The only time Elfman stops to acknowledge the Christmas setting is with an occasional jingle bell or French horn on the soundtrack. I’m not exactly complaining. It’s a pretty good Elfman score and matches the movie’s macabre tone. The soundtrack also features a fairly forgettable cover of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” from Annie Lennox and Al Green.

Like every Christmas movie, “Scrooged” gets shown on TV all the damn time during December. Through this avenue, it’s attracted an audience who happily consider it a regular part of their Christmas viewing. “Scrooged” is a deeply flawed movie, with a horribly inconsistent tone that regularly leaves the viewer with whiplash. Luckily, Bill Murray keeps the ship from steering out of control. Some great production design, a solid supporting cast, and a number of inspired moments makes “Scrooged” worth seeing. I mean, it’s not a Christmas classic on the level of “Lethal Weapon.” I’m not even sure it’s a good movie. But it’s not bad either. [Grade: C+]

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