Scrooged (1988) [Revisited]

I wasn't going to do this again. Depending on your point of view, it's not at all clear this should count as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all. Really, it's more a parody or derived work. If we're counting this, should we also be counting The Grinch, It's a Wonderful Life, or Cash on Demand? But this kept appearing on online lists of Christmas Carol adaptations, and I eventually decided if I wanted to seriously look at how these have evolved over time, I really needed to consider this one as well.

To recap, I briefly reviewed Scrooged as a Christmas movie more than a decade ago, with the main takeaway being I thought the movie was fine but not particularly memorable. Rewatching it in 2022, I have quite a few more thoughts on a number of different subjects. Some of this is going to be very positive, some negative, and still more that's just... weird.

Let's start with the weird, actually. Scrooged begins with a number of promotions for holiday specials and movies being aired by the fictional television station run by Frank, the movie's Scrooge analog played by Bill Murray. What I found surprising watching this now, is none of these supposedly comically absurd concepts feel all that unrealistic anymore. The violent Christmas action movie where Santa's workshop is under siege more or less exists, and if that's not close enough, there's another take coming. "The Night the Reindeer Died" feels tame in comparison. As for the others, I'm not sure the "Cajun Christmas" special was all that weird a concept then. The Muppets have been doing quirky Christmas specials for ages; why is a puppet alligator following Robert Goulet stranger than the Swedish Chef trying to cook Big Bird?

That brings us to Frank's extreme promo for IBC's live production of A Christmas Carol, featuring drugs, terrorism, acid rain, and a host of other horrific imagery. I'll grant trying to scare people into wanting to watch a relatively old-fashioned family movie is an unrealistic marketing strategy, but what we see of the actual promotion is less scary than ads that aired for the 2019 BBC miniseries. And while this juxtaposition isn't particularly likely, the reverse has actually happened, when the Die Hard 4K release was officially advertised as a fun family comedy (granted, this was in a tongue-in-cheek context).

In short, Scrooged's almost dystopian parody of '80s TV is more or less the media landscape we inhabit.

Now let's move on to the movie itself. This is essentially a retelling of the story with Scrooge replaced with a mean-hearted TV executive producing a live version of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. With only a couple minor alterations, the story is more or less intact with new characters serving as modern variations on the classic cast.

The first alteration is the new Belle, here named Claire, who has a greatly expanded part to accommodate a romantic comedy subplot. Honestly, I'm almost surprised more adaptations don't do something similar, given how common it's become to expand Belle's role. I'm not saying I think it's a good idea, but for the past seven decades, it's become common to turn a couple short (but significant) scenes into a romance. If you're going to do so, it almost feels like an oversight not to provide some kind of resolution to the subplot.

Next, let's talk about James, the movie's stand-in for Fred. Since Frank is significantly younger than Scrooge, they've changed their relationship from nephew to brother, which also removes Fan as a character (not that she was much of a character in the original). Other than that, the rest of the details are more or less intact, save that Frank and James are closer than Scrooge and Fred. Frank still isn't interested in going to dinner, and he's not a great brother, but he seems more willing to hang out with James from time to time.

Aside from gender-flipping Bob Cratchit and making her more assertive, Grace is pretty similar in terms of how she interacts with the plot. She's a single mom, which is new, and her son has a different issue, but the role they play is more or less the same. Her son doesn't speak, incidentally, seemingly due to psychological trauma. If you're surprised by him saying, "God bless us, every one," at the end, I'm guessing this is the first movie you've ever seen in your life.

A larger change is the addition of three new significant characters. First, there's Elliot, a man who sort of functions as an alternate take on Bob Cratchit. He's played by Bobcat Goldthwait, and the character mirrors the actor's manic shtick. Elliot's fired by Frank early in the movie, spends the rest of the film undergoing additional misadventures, then shows up with a shotgun looking for revenge. Naturally, Frank's redemption is set midway through Elliot hunting him, so they make amends and team up for the end.

The second new character is Brice, a hotshot executive trying to take over Frank's production. Brice sort of functions as an antagonist, which feels off: objectively, he seems like a far kinder person than Frank, so I'm unclear why we're supposed to cheer him getting his comeuppance. It's also worth noting the character is ambiguously coded gay, and there's a homophobic joke about him late in the movie.

The other notable new addition is given far less screen time. Herman, a homeless man Frank meets at a shelter run by Claire, freezes to death at the end of the Present section. I mainly bring him up, because I think it's one of the more interesting additions to the narrative. The character serves as a human connection to the effects of capitalism. Or at least it should symbolize that: the movie kind of pulls back on making a statement that subversive (more on that in a bit).

Since the story's updated, all the ghosts are, as well. They still more or less perform the same function, but their personalities are completely new. Marley is replaced by Lew, who appears as a zombified corpse. He's got a sense of humor and seems to delight in scaring the hell out of Frank. Same goes for the new Ghost of Christmas Past, a taxi driver who drives Frank back in time.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is a violence-prone Sugarplum Fairy who beats the crap out of Frank constantly. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is closest to the original description (or at least modern spins on that description): he's basically the Grim Reaper, now with a TV for a face and what appear to be tormented spirits imprisoned in his ribcage.

The first half of the movie is fairly unremarkable. It's not entirely bad, but it's more or less a comedic vehicle for Murray to rehash the same stuff he's done countless times before (albeit as more of a jerk than usual). Other characters likewise are there as comedians: they cast Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present for a reason.

Most of the jokes through the Past felt a bit tired and cliché (such as the reveal Frank's father used to bring him cuts of meat as Christmas gifts). His relationship with Claire wasn't particularly interesting or at all believable (what the hell did she see in him in the first place?), and jokes about his career path weren't nearly as funny as the movie hoped.

Things pick up with the Present. I found Carol Kane's sadistic fairy funnier than anything up to that point. The stuff Frank sees is less compelling, but I'll overlook that. Then, with the discovery of Herman (who's death the movie does not undo), some stakes are actually added. Elliot's reappearance is funny, as well, assuming you're not too horrified by the reality of gun violence to find the premise entertaining.

Christmas Yet to Come then shifts gears. Rather than witnessing a literal future, Frank is taken to a sort of expressionist nightmare. He's shown a vision of Grace visiting her son in an institution, Claire taking cruel advice he gave her to heart, and finally his body being cremated. None of this is stylized to appear realistic: the settings and costumes are anachronistic and strange, hallways are slanted, and everything appears off.

For the duration of this sequence, the movie stops trying to be funny. It's all weird and surreal enough I suspect some audiences thought it was funny, but I don't think that's the intent. The future shown here is sort of a shadow, a vision rather than reality. I'm reminded of the 1935 adaptation that was likewise inspired by German Expressionism, and I suspect that's not a coincidence.

And, to his credit, Murray sells his character's fear. I think this section works incredibly well. The follow-up shifts back into comedy with Murray having to win over Elliot, who's still after him, then deciding to seize control of the live broadcast to deliver a speech about Christmas. He also uses this platform to make amends with coworkers, apologize to his brother, and convince Claire to give him another choice.

I'm honestly torn on this ending. On one hand, it's technically pretty good. Murray is a really good actor when he's asked to try, and he comes off as sincere as his character pours his soul into the camera.

The place it comes up short is in theme. The emotions feel real, but the actual words being spoken feel toned back and a bit weak. Frank calls on people to open their hearts and to perform kind deeds for those who are less fortunate. The thing is... that's not really enough. I don't think it would have saved Herman, for one. If you're modernizing A Christmas Carol, you need to consider the ways systemic exploitation and the hoarding of wealth and resources has tragic effects on the poor. It's not enough to give someone a blanket and a sandwich (literally Frank's suggestions) and get into the habit of doing good. We actually need to confront the ways the economic system we're in undervalues human life.

I'd argue that It's a Wonderful Life touches on these ideas. There's no reason Scrooged couldn't have as well, save that media in the 1980s tended to reduce themes to simplistic "let's all do our part" mantras to avoid offending those in power.

This is, admittedly, less an issue inherent to the movie itself, but it's a fairly notable way the film hasn't aged well. It touches on social problems and then offers solutions that are in hindsight clearly insufficient. In addition, this connects to a story problem, namely that the price for Frank's redemption in this movie is far too low, and the rewards - including winning Claire back - feel unearned and therefore unsatisfying. Setting aside politics, the fact Frank's redemption is tied to him being open to helping others rather than being responsible for the world around him fails to resolve his arc and - more importantly - misses the point of the original. Mankind isn't just Scrooge's hobby: it's his business. That's missing here.

Despite these issues, I'm walking away from this viewing with a slightly higher opinion than I've had in the past. I got much more out of the future section than on previous viewings, and that alone counts for a great deal. On top of that, the effects work holds up well, particularly the makeup on Lew.

Still, the movie's inability to really stick the landing, coupled with the fact the first half just isn't all that funny, holds this back from earning a recommendation.