You would think that a fan of Richard Donner’s like me would be head over heels for his 1988 Christmas comedy, “Scrooged.” The truth is, this year was only my second time watching it, and I can’t say I love it, but I will say, I love Bill Murray in it, and the way Donner directs it feels very different from how he approached something like “Lethal Weapon” or “Conspiracy Theory.” The closest comparison in his career, I think, was his adventure comedy, “The Goonies,” but it’s the way it hints at a later Murray masterpiece that really made it work for me.
The script by Mitch Glazer (who co-wrote last year’s “A Very Murray Christmas” for the actor) and Michael O’Donoghue (a “Saturday Night Live” vet who died in 1994) is a contemporary riff on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with the film’s Scrooge being Frank Cross, a New York TV executive who has very specific ideas for how to sell his network’s Christmas lineup, including a live presentation of “Scrooge” with scantily-clad dancers and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim; it looks just as crazy as it sounds. He has come up with an ad to promote the event that is laced with fear to drive people to their televisions that night, and he doesn’t like it when one of his underlings (Eliot, played by Bobcat Goldthwait) brings up concerns about it…he fires him. On Christmas Eve. His assistant, Grace (Alfre Woodard), is unable to enjoy time with her family, and her young son, because of Frank’s demands, and it only gets worse when the head of the company Frank works for brings in a hot-shot (John Glover) to help him with the logistics. After he has a breakdown on set, Frank goes up to his office, where a long-dead mentor (John Forsythe) visits him, asking him to change his ways. If he does not, he will be visited upon by three spirits. You can probably figure out the rest from there.
While the marketing of the film at the time emphasized Murray’s role in “Ghostbusters,” this feels much more akin to his 1993 classic with Harold Ramis, “Groundhog Day.” Both films are about bastards who are given singularly unique opportunities to see the error of their ways, and to grow. Whereas Ramis’s film is a genuine original that allows for the main character’s gradual change, Donner’s is a take on a timeless tale of being shown what will happen is he doesn’t change right then and there. For Cross, as with Scrooge, an evolution in character will happen after the film ends- it’s what the spirits show him that will inspire it, whether it’s memories of how he got to be the way he is, or how he let Clare, a lover back in his younger days (played by Karen Allen), get away through his cynicism, or a look at the lives he takes for granted, like Grace and her unspeaking son or his caring brother (John Murray), or a look at how the lives he has an impact on will be affected in the future. Donner can deliver individual comedic set pieces that work, but as much as I admire him, I never felt like he was able to maintain a solidly comedic tone without getting too bombastic or broad (see: “The Goonies”), and that is an issue at work in “Scrooged.” He does a pretty good job here, partially because of the straightforward nature of the script, as well as Murray’s naturally-comedic demeanor (along with an assist musically by Danny Elfman), but the fantasy set pieces feel less effortlessly funny than they probably should. That being said, Murray is the engine that makes Donner’s holiday sled fly, and this is a vintage role for the actor with just the right blend of mirth and wicked laughs for a character who is a walking, talking lump of coal to all around him, but has to come out on the other side as a sugarplum. It’s an entertaining turn, and is a big reason why “Scrooged” works for a lot of people during the holidays.