Every year around this time, I can usually be found humbugging about how people rarely watch holiday-themed films that were released after 1994. Sometimes I wonder if this is actually untrue and that the reason I think this way is that I’m old. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe people born in the 1990’s watch Ben Affleck’s Surviving Christmas on an endless loop while they’re chugging nog and tinseling their trees. Me? While I have no problem firing up the Die Hards every December I would love it if someone made a modern Christmas Classic. I even had medium hopes for The Christmas Chronicles 2 with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn but, honestly, I couldn’t even make it through the trailer. With the exception of Elf and Bullshit Actually, Xmas programming is still restricted to A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, and a small handful of other flicks from back around then. Scrooged, Bill Murray’s 1988 piss take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, definitely keeps company with that handful of flicks I just mentioned. Over the years, a lot of people have asked me for my take on Scrooged and I didn’t really think I had one. I saw it in the theater when I was 10 years-old and I loved it because Bill Murray was my Rushmore and thus incapable of disappointing me. But just last week a bold declaration caught my eye and made me think it might be time to reevaluate. I was thumbing through my copy of Robert Schnakenberg’s The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray and was rather puzzled by the author’s declaration that Scrooged is “easily the worst film of Murray’s career.” Easily!? This guy made TWO Garfields and that stupid ass elephant movie! He was in Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah, which is one of the worst movies made by anyone ever. I decided to follow up with the late Roger Ebert, who called Scrooged “one of the most disquieting and unsettling films to come along in quite some time” in a scathing one star review. Dang, Rog! According to the interwebs, the film’s production was rocky. Like, Apocalypse Now-level rocky. Murray, who, it must be said, is so notoriously prickly that Danny Aykroyd nicknamed him the Murricaine, clashed furiously with Scrooged director Dick Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon, lots of other movies that are not comedies). Donner’s idea of funny was to have Murray scream all of his lines at the top of his lungs, so that’s exactly what he does! The screenplay, by SNL O.G. Michael O’Donoghue, was neutered to the point of unrecognizability. O’Donoghue had this to say about what ended up on the screen: “We wrote a story that could make you laugh and cry. You would have wanted to share it with your grandchildren every fucking Christmas for the next 100 years. The finished film was a piece of unadulterated, unmitigated shit.” Holy smokes, people! Here I thought that everyone who isn’t New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane (more on him in a bit) LOVED Scrooged! Had I just misremembered the whole thing?? I decided to go ahead and give it another spin to see what was what.
What happens is this: Scrooged opens with a series of trailers for fake movies/TV shows, most of which look better than actual Scrooged. There’s The Day the Reindeer Died, featuring Fall Guy star and subject of the obscure late-era Beastie Boys track “Lee Majors Come Again,” Lee Majors. There’s Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas Special as well as a live performance of A Christmas Story, starring Buddy Hackett, Mary Lou Retton, and the Solid Gold Dancers. All of these cameos feel like a horribly misguided flex by Donner, who was already pushing 60 when this film was made. I’m gonna say that I had my finger firmly on the zeitgeist in 1988, being 10 years-old and all, and none of these dusty references rang my bell. I mean, the 1984 Olympics were pretty far in the rearview by this point. We cut to: a board room at IBC Television, where we meet network president Frank Cross (Murray), who immediately starts screaming at his assembled underlings. The trailers? He hates them. He says that he produced his own trailer for the Dickens Xmas Special (which he claims will cost $40 million dollars...which is $8 mil more than they spent on this unnecessarily lavish movie we are watching) and proceeds to unveil it. It features the following: a man shooting heroin, a freeway drive by shooting, and a commercial airliner exploding. A voice over says you need to watch the special because “your life depends on it.” Frank looks on, mouth screwed open, face twisted up with sick joy. Look...already...there’s no way that someone with these kinds of dark, demented thoughts would be put in charge of an Orange Julius, let alone a major TV network. Didn’t you see what happened to Dudley Moore in that Crazy People flick (hello?....hello?). Everyone in the room is thoroughly horrified, particularly this cat Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait, buttoned down in costume but not temperament). Bobcat tells Frank that his commercial looks like an ad for The Manson Family Xmas Special. Frank thanks him for his input and then orders him to be fired and removed from the premises immediately. After the meeting, Frank is visited by his boss, played by legendary scofflaw Robert Mitchum, looking thoroughly bemused by the fact that he is appearing in this film. Mitchum tells Frank that television watching is on the rise among domestic cats and dogs and that the network should consider producing more pet-friendly programming. I feel like this is the set-up for a huge payoff later in the film. We’ll see if I’m right! After Mitchum waltzes off with his paycheck for two days of shooting, Frank starts to browbeat the shit out of his long-suffering secretary Grace, played by the lady who recently found herself on the New York Times list of the top 25 actors of the 21st century, Alfre Woodard. Frank insists that Grace work late so he can dictate his Xmas list (bath towels for most). Grace says that she needs to take her youngest son Calvin to a doctor’s appointment. Frank screams that he does not care and then tears up the child’s Xmas artwork that Grace has hanging in her cubicle, deeming it amateurish. The guy is THAT MEAN! Frank also receives a visit from his brother and real life Murray brother John Murray, whose shameless attempt at forging a career out of impersonating his brother yielded approximately one movie (1985’s Moving Violations...which isn’t all that bad. Sally Kellerman is in it!).
When Frank and his brother exit the building, they pass a band of street musicians that features Paul Schaeffer, cheese whiz sax maestro Dave Sanborn, and Miles Davis. ACTUAL MILES DAVIS! Talk about a flex! Frank steals a taxi from an elderly lady and flips her the bird. He attends a gala where he is presented with some sort of prestigious TV trophy, only to turn around and discard the trophy in the back of another taxi. In case you somehow weren’t already picking up on it, this guy Frank Cross is a total fricken’ jerk. Meanwhile up in Harlem, poor Grace is dragging her son home from an unsuccessful doctor’s appointment. The boy? He can’t speak...and no one can do nothin’ about it. I feel like they already had a pill for that sort of thing by the late 80’s, but I’m not a medical doctor so please don’t quote me on that. When Frank returns to his office, he pours himself a Vodka and Tab and proceeds to do whatever it is that miserly network presidents do after hours. His lie-around-and-sulk is rudely interrupted by the appearance of special effects-laden apparition played by the dude who played Blake Carrington on that Dynasty show. This grey ghoul is the ghost of Frank’s former boss, who died youngish and unfulfilled or whatever. He tells Frank that he’ll be visited by three ghosts starting at noon the following day. I guess that’s more or less how the plot of the Dickens story goes, right? I should already know this shit. After all, I played young Ebeneezer Scrooge in a 7th grade production of A Christmas Carol that was begrudgingly attended by my parents as well as the parents of everyone else in the cast and no one else. Old Boss Ghost tells Frank that he’s pissing his life away being such a prick to everyone...and that he should fill his life with charity, mercy, and kindness. Frank calls bullshit and wonders aloud if his vodka was poisoned by the Cherynobyl disaster. This was a hot reference back in ‘88 and, you know, it’s a hot reference in 2020 too thanks to that bomb ass HBO show. The ghost slaps Frank around a bit and throws him out the window, where he plunges 80 stories and lands back in his office. He looks over at his phone to see that it is automatically drunk dialing Raiders of the Lost Ark star Karen Allen, who is Frank’s severely estranged ex-girlfriend Claire. He tells her answering machine that he needs to speak with her immediately. Mmm...mmm hmm.
The next day, which is Christmas Eve y’all, Frank arrives at work to news that his Xmas TV spot scared an 80 year-old lady to death. Frank is psyched ‘cuz dead old ladies=solid comedy gold. Speaking of Solid Gold, Frank is summoned to the set because the censors have an issue with one of the Solid Gold dancer’s exposed nipple(s). Ahh...Solid Gold--another cultural touchstone that was stale as shit by 1988. What’s next? Is Mikey Likes It from those Life cereal ads gonna show up and eat Frank’s breakfast? Frank screams at everyone on set and suggests stapling a pair of fake antlers onto the head of a real mouse. I mean...that mouse bit is kinda funny, no? Claire arrives on the scene and tells Frank that she came as soon as she got his message, even though they haven’t seen each other in 15 years. While Frank has been carrying on like a malevolent Jack Donaghy, Claire has been running a homeless shelter. Gotta have some character juxto, amirite? Even though Karen Allen is still in her Animal House, ass-baring prime, she tells Frank that she is unmarried and single because of course she is. She asks Frank why he’s so angry. He evades the question and continues to scream. The entire set collapses.
Frank heads out to the Savoy to meet Mitchum for a three highball lunch. Before he can order his oysters rockefeller, Frank realizes that it’s almost Ghost O’Clock and starts to hallucinate and ad lib profusely. Mitchum looks on in horror, perhaps wondering how his career led him from Cape Fear to Scrooged. Franks sees an eyeball in his cocktail that isn’t really there. When he spots a waiter fully engulfed in flames, Frank leaps to his feet, grabs a champagne ice bucket, and douses the waiter, who isn’t actually on fire. “Sorry,” Frank says to the waiter (who is white), “I thought you were Richard Pryor!” Wait a minute! Is this a joke about how Richard Pryor gave himself third degree burns over 50% of his body in a cocaine freebasing accident!? Dude, that is NOT FUNNY! Show Dick some respect! Frank sprints out of the resto and jumps into one of those old timey NYC Yellow Cabs driven by none other than Buster Poindexter! That’s right--the great David Johannson, frontman of the seminal glam outfit New York Dolls. He’s the Ghost of Christmas Past and man am I happy to see him! You know who was NOT happy to see him? His former bass player, Arthur Kane. Legend has it that an already down on his luck Kane was hanging around his squat one evening when Scrooged came on the TV. Kane was so distraught to see his former bandmate achieving silver screen success he fucking defenstrated himself. Sustained permanent brain damage in the fall and everything. It’s cool though ‘cuz eventually xenophobic vegan lunatic Steven Patrick Morrissey plucked Kane out of the wastebin of history and reunited him with the Dolls. They played a series of successful, sold out gigs in London in 2004, which is awesome. Two weeks after the shows, Kane went to the hospital with a headache and died three hours later of cancer of the everywhere, which is less awesome. ANYWAY, the cigar-chomping Ghost of Xmas Past brings Frank all the way back to 1955. Oh man--I wonder if they're gonna run into the McFly’s! You want a tab, you gotta order something! Nah, he brings Frank to his sad ass family home, which is the only house on the street where the halls remain undecked. Four year-old Frankie is aggressively ignored by his parents and spends all day glued to the telly. His dad comes home from work and he’s totally Bill Murray’s real life older brother, Brian Doyle. For those of y’all watching at home with a Murray Brother stamp card, please mark off spot #2. Pop Cross tosses the kid a package of veal shanks for Xmas. The kid whines and says that he wants a PS5. The old man tells the kid to get off his 4 year-old ass and get a friggin’ job then. Present day Frank, watching the scene unfold, sides with his old man. “A fine piece of milk-fed veal retails for $40-$50!” he says. And you know what? I kinda agree with him! Frank tells Buster Poindexter that he did have some actual happy memories from childhood, but Buster Poindexter tells him that his memories are actually the plotlines to famous television shows. I feel your pain, dude. I was a latchkey kid with a serious boob tube habit too. Remember when my family took in a wisecracking alien who ate all of the neighborhood cats? Remember when I had to pretend I was gay because my fusty downstairs landlord disapproved of a straight man rooming with two straight women? I do.
They journey forth to 1968, where a mulleted Frank is working as an assistant something or other at ICB. The swinging staff Xmas party is in full swing and everyone is hammered but Frank already looks miserable. One of the office gals sits on the copier and photocopies her asshole and hands Frank a copy and asks him out to Chinese food. Frank says that he doesn’t eat Chinese food because it is made from cats, which is a popular urban legend, and also, racist as shit. I’m fuzzy with the whole math thing, but if Frank was 4 in 1955 wouldn’t he only be 17 in 1968? Ahh, like Bill Murray said in an earlier flick: it just doesn’t matter! On his way home from work, Frank literally slams into Claire in the West Village and that shit is on like billabong. These two are living together in post-coital, pre-marital bliss in no time. Frank suddenly loves Xmas so much that he insists on opening presents on Christmas Eve. Dude cannot wait! He buys Claire a set of steak knives. And for him? A Kama Sutra book. Later that evening, they unwisely try to combine the gifts, bringing the film to a shockingly gruesome early conclusion. I mean...I wish! We jump ahead to ‘71, where Frank is appearing on a children’s variety show in a big floppy dog costume. Claire watches from the wings, with smiles for miles. After the show, a still alive Blake Carrington invites Frank and Claire to accompany him and his lady du jour to dinner that evening. Claire says that it’s Xmas Eve and they already have super unbreakable dinner plans with friends. Frank says that dinner with his boss is a huge opportunity and more important than friends dinner. Claire tells Frank that if he feels that way then they should separate. Frank is like fine, fuck you, BYE! Man, that shit took a TURN!
Frank is deposited back in the present day, where he materializes on the set of the Xmas Special. He screams some more and calls a woman a bitch. I see here in my notes that I wrote the word “Muppets” but I have no idea why. I think I wanted to suggest that this film would be a lot better with Muppets, much like A Muppet Christmas Carol, which also features Muppets. That one was a little tough though because it was the first Muppet flick after Jim Henson died and it was jarring to hear Kermit voiced by someone else. Less jarring than hearing Kermit voiced by a beyond-the-grave Jim Henson? Probably. Anyway, Frank hauls ass over to Claire’s homeless shelter. Among the assembled needy is the actor Michael J Pollard. Dude, I was just making jokes about you having sex with Charlize Theron in the review I wrote before this one! And look--here’s Anne Ramsey! Mama Fratelli! Oh right cuz Dick Donner directed The Goonies too. She really got the Roy Orbinson special, didn’t she? Long career...late 80’s comeback...followed by instant death. Claire shows up and she’s immediately sweet on Frank, even though he was a complete ass to her, what, earlier that same morning?? He wants to whisk her away to eat Chinese food. Claire says that she’d be happy to join him but that her volunteers were unsuccessful in procuring turkeys for the shelter and she needs to stay long enough to make sure no one goes hungry. Frank hears this and loses his shit. He calls the volunteers, women both, fat. He tells Claire that her staff is incompetent and demands that she liquidate them. Despite this unbelievable display of assholery, Claire remains calm and keeps pleading with Frank to just wait an hour or so. “Take the rest of your life,” Frank says, before storming out. Man, what a cock. Lessons learned so far: none.
Frank returns to the studio, where he finds an empty set. And also--Carol Kane in an angel costume, flying around the room on barely concealed ropes. She’s the Ghost of Xmas Present and the running “joke” is that she keeps beating the shit out of Frank. Well apparently Kane decided to get all method and really beat the shit out of Bill Murray. Of Kane, Murray said “she hit me so hard that she separated my teeth from my gums,” which seems like a really roundabout way of saying “she knocked my friggin’ teeth out.” These scenes are already kind of unbearable to watch without the knowledge that actual violence was involved. Although some hack at the Hollywood Reporter praised Kane’s performance and called her a “certified hoot” so what the hell do I know? Kane flies Frank up to Harlem, where they peep in on Grace and her SEVENTEEN children! They can’t afford a Christmas tree so they decorate Calvin ‘cuz that’s what you do with mute kids. Why no one in the present can see Frank when he’s with the ghost is never properly explained, just like whatever the hell happened to get this guy trapped on Groundhog Day. Kane stops beating Frank for long enough to tell him that Calvin stopped speaking after witnessing his father’s murder. Well why didn’t you tell us that before!? No wonder the doctor couldn’t help him! The kid needs a therapist, not a pediatrician! Next they fly over to Frank’s brother’s apartment, where the assembled Xmas Eve cocktail guests include real life Murray brother and man who got so shitfaced on Mad Men he pissed his pants, Joel Murray. That’s three stamps on the Murray brother card! Frank had intended to gift his brother a bath towel but Grace went behind his back and sent the brother a top of the line VCR (note: SIIIICK!!!). Frank says that he will now fire Grace. John Murray’s friends complain that his brother is an asshole jerk but John defends him and says that he got him a framed picture of the two of ‘em for Xmas. Everyone toasts to Frank. Speaking of toast, Carol Kane smashes Frank in the face with a toaster. Frank says “that bitch hit me with a toaster.” Yeah dude...we saw.
Frank is deposited in the ice-covered sewer from those C.H.U.D. flicks. He takes a look around and says “what is this? Trump Tower?” We could chuckle at this back then because Donald Trump was just some clown businessman and not the goddamn leader of the free world. GAH!!! Frank finds Michael J Pollard frozen to death and feels a tiny bit bad...but just a tiny bit. He ends up back in his office, where he pours himself a tall vodka and Tab. I gotta say--the product placement in this flick was super effective. I found myself thirsty for a Tab for the first time since their massive “Tab’s got SASS!” campaign in the early 80’s. Then I went 7-11 and learned that Coca-Cola just discontinued Tab THIS MONTH! Man, 2020 just keeps right on sucking. The Ghost of Christmas Future finally shows up, and he’s a big, scary FX monster. You know what’s even scarier than that, though? Bobcat Goldthwait also shows up brandishing a shotgun, looking to exact a little workplace revenge. I mean...I guess we didn’t have weekly mass shootings back in the 1980’s...but these scenes are tough to watch now. They certainly aren’t, you know, funny. Or Christmasy. My already dampened holiday spirits remain damp. Before Bobcat can blast a hole in Frank, Future Ghost tosses him in an elevator and drives him off to, you know, the future...which looks all Minority Report-ish. They must’ve spent a friggin’ fortune on this movie. It’s like Christmas Avatar. First, Frank checks in on Claire, who is at some fancy wine and cheese party. She’s somehow transformed herself into Nicole Kidman’s character from (pick any recent HBO Limited Series). She’s all posh now and she laments having wasted 20 years of her life helping “beggars.” Next, Frank drops in on his own funeral, which is being attended by exactly two people: his brother and his brother’s wife. Wait, what about Claire?? Why would she have undergone this massive personality change if she hadn’t gotten together with Frank? Did she just arrive at horrible on her own?? As Frank’s casket starts to slide into the cremation fireplace, undead Frank tries to stop it. “I want to LIVE!!” he wails. But….but...WHY!? What did you see over the last 30 minutes that made you decide that you cherish life?? What did you see, FRANK!? I’m really at a loss here, folks.
Frank arrives back in the present uhhhhhh-gain with his completely illogical newfound lust for life. Problem is there’s a dude in is office who still wants to murder him. Frank grabs Bobcat and plants a wet one on him and drags him down to the studio, where that Xmas Special is broadcasting live. Frank plans to interrupt the broadcast so he dispatches Bobcat to hold everyone in the control room at gunpoint so they won’t cut the feed. Bobcat points his shotgun at people’s heads while they whimper and cry plead for their lives and THIS IS A COMEDY HOW?? So apparently Bill Murray was supposed to jump on set and deliver this climactic speech but decided to go off script and have what onlookers described as an actual nervous breakdown. This whiplash character reversal makes absolutely no sense. I know that’s how A Christmas Carol is supposed to end….with Scrooge learning from his mistakes and changing his Scroogely ways. But this Frank fucker hasn’t learned jack shit! Robert Mitchum, watching the broacast from his mansion, is so upset by what he’s seeing he fucking kicks one of his cats! There’s your big payoff to that cat bit from earlier. Claire sees this slow motion car wreck on TV and rushes to the set, where Frank is still spewing his yuletide logorrhea. “It’s not too late! You can still spend Xmas with someone you love! Call an old friend! Call an army buddy! Here’s a picture of me and my way less famous younger brother!” Dude, tell it to your shrink, not 10 million strangers. Narcissism is a serious problem too, you know? After Frank finally tuckers himself out, he looks down to see little Calvin, who whispers “god bless us everyone.” Oh come ONNNN!!! This mute kid with severe PTSD...whose mom is gonna have her own PTSD from working for Frank...was so moved by that holiday word salad that he was finally moved to speak!? Bah Humbug to that friggin crap! Everyone is as happy as pigs in shit (except Michael J Pollard, who is still frozen under the 6 train). The ghosts of past, present, and future beam with pride. The whole cast breaks into a big show stopping performance of the Jackie DeShannon non-holiday classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” but they sing it all fucked up. They totally jack up the song’s cadence. It’s supposed to be “putalilLOVE in your heart” not “put-a-little-love-in-your-heart.” I have been annoyed by this for 32 years and counting. The credits roll. Bill Murray looks into the camera and yells “Feed me, Seymour!,” which is a line from a movie that is not this one.
OK, so I know I just talked a bunch of smack about Scrooged but I still think it’s a halfway decent flick. It’s a solid C+. I’d still rather watch this flick than Four Christmases or whatever bullshit any day. I often end my reviews with “god bless us everyone” but that friggin’ little quiet kid already beat me to the punch this time. God help us, everyone? That works. The end.