Friday, July 30, 2010

Christmas in July: Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged is an entertaining but clearly conflicted film, bouncing between Tim Burton-style goth darkness and standard 1980s Hollywood comedy gloss, between Bill Murray's bone-dry sarcasm and Christmas-movie sentiment. It's a retelling of A Christmas Carol that's deeply skeptical of the messages behind A Christmas Carol, which nevertheless gives in to them by the end. It doesn't entirely work, but thanks to Murray and a strong supporting cast, it's clever and weird enough to qualify as an original take on the material, and its concessions to Christmas cheer don't feel too forced.

Murray's Scrooge figure is TV executive Frank Cross, who puts on absurd programs (Robert Goulet's Cajun Christmas!) that look like they belong on the station in Weird Al Yankovic's UHF. He's ruthless and insensitive but kind of a fun guy, and not nearly as dour or depressing as Scrooge typically is. Unlike Scrooge, Frank gets visited by his ghosts throughout the day on Christmas Eve, and has time in between visitations to interact with his co-workers and, of course, his long-lost love, played by the 1980s' smilingest actress, Karen Allen. His ghosts are belligerent and goofy, played with slapstick verve by David Johansen and Carol Kane. And since one of Frank's ridiculous TV productions is a live staging of A Christmas Carol, he's completely aware of all their machinations. That he falls for them anyway is one of the movie's sticking points.

Still, even when Frank is giving the requisite speech about love and togetherness, Murray tinges it with bitterness and a manic sense of desperation. There's a happy ending, sure, but it's not as clear and upbeat as the typical Christmas Carol ending, even if Frank gets the girl that Scrooge never does. His journey is more about rekindling that romance than it is about feeling sympathy for the less fortunate, although he learns to give his working-class secretary (Alfre Woodard) a raise and manages to help her Tiny Tim-esque son. As nice as that is, though, the movie throws in an extra Bob Cratchit figure via Bobcat Goldthwait's fired junior executive, and he's just as unhinged as Frank is by the end (much of the climax involves his wielding a shotgun).

So the movie is a little mixed up, but it's still full of dry wit and willing to go to some dark places (the Danny Elfman score and the fantasy sequences definitely put me in mind of early Burton, even though actual director Richard Donner is much more square and straightforward). It tells a story that really doesn't need to be told again, and makes it feel mostly fresh and fun.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's more important than ratings.

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