Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Scrooged (1988)

Dickensfest 2012 continues with a guest review by Ian Rennie, a long time friend of ours.    RigbyMel first met Ian via a Ben Folds Five message board back in the late 1990s. He has worked as a librarian in both the U.S. and the U.K. We at Holiday Film Reviews have always enjoyed his writing talent and wit -- you can check out some of his flash fiction on and can follow him on Twitter as @theangelremielMany thanks for being a part of our Dickensfest 2012 project, Ian!

Scrooged (1988)

When RigbyMel and J.A. Morris approached me with the idea of reviewing a Dickensian holiday movie for the blog, I had a hard time saying yes, for two reasons, both of which were kind of stumpers.

1) I don't really like holiday movies.  Without becoming too true to type, I tend to say a mild "bah, humbug" at films that depend on the season for their effectiveness.  I'm not joking at all when I say that my favourite christmas film is Die Hard.  I can see the appeal, but at the same time I know in my heart that they're not for me.

2) This one may get me crucified, but... I don't think Dickens adapts all that well to the screen.  I want to like films of his books, and some of his books I absolutely love.  I love The Mystery of Edwin Drood enough that I once read an Italian novel called "The D Case" which features Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot trying to work out how the novel would have ended.  Unfortunately, and again this is only my opinion, but the Dickensian dialogue that thrives on the page dies in the mouths of actors.

So, I was going to politely decline and wish RigbyMel and J.A. the best, and then my wife reminded me of Scrooged.

Oh yes, I'd forgotten about Scrooged.

Bill Murray in that magical period between the two Ghostbusters movies.  Karen Allen. Bobcat Goldthwait. John Glover.  Robert Mitchum. ROBERT MITCHUM.

A razor sharp self-aware script by Mitch Glazer, who would go on to be one of the writers on the Alfonso Cuaron version of Great Expectations.  A score by Danny Elfman at the height of his powers.  And just to make it perfect, the following words:

"A Richard Donner film"

I've changed my mind.  I love holiday movies.

Scrooged, for those who haven't seen it (and if you haven't you should go get it on Netflix right now.  This review can wait) is, as the title suggests, a rather loose adaptation of A Christmas Carol.  Loose enough that there is a film-within-a-film adaptation of A Christmas Carol inside it.  It might be more true to call it a modernization of A Christmas Carol, or even a "scroogealike".  Nonetheless, even though it is somewhat of a potsmodern look at its subject matter, the atmosphere of the original shines though.

Frank Cross is a TV executive who views Christmas as a commodity.  It's there to be sold for ratings, not enjoyed.  The years as a TV executive have made him cold and hard, to the point where he fires an employee on Christmas Eve merely for expressing an opinion about a trailer for their Christmas programs. 

When Frank is given personal responsibility for the success of the station's live action presentation of A Christmas Carol, his life begins to mirror that of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Much like Scrooge, he is visited in the night by his former business partner, Lew Hayward, who is a little more zombified than Jacob Marley, and adds an unsettling touch of An American Werewolf In London to the proceedings.  Like Scrooge before him, he is told he will be visited by three spirits.

The first finds him as he leaves his office and hails a cab.  The Ghost Of Christmas Past is a crazy taxi driver played with scenery chewing zeal by David Johansen.  Yes, as in the singer of the New York Dolls. The ghost shows him his past, as a young and idealistic gofer at a TV station, and shows him meeting Claire, the love of his life. 

In this sequence we see the slow jading of a man as he falls out of love with everything but success.  By the end, when he chooses his first onscreen TV job over his three year relationship, the seeds of the man Frank Cross would become are planted.

Christmas Present appears in the form of Carol Kane, and shows Frank the people he has shoved out of his life: his assistant Grace who hardly has time for her mute and possibly autistic son, his brother who still loves him, Claire, the woman he had loved who now runs a homeless shelter.

The next visitor Frank receives is a sharp left turn from the source material, as Frank encounters the disgruntled employee he fired earlier in the day, who has come back to his former workplace with a shotgun.  A near miss leaves frank running into an elevator, only to be faced by a shrouded figure with a TV screen as a face: the ghost of Christmas Future.

The future is just as dystopian as might be expected.  Claire has become as cold and uncaring as Frank ever was.  Grace's son is committed to an institution.  Only Frank's brother cares that he has died.

 From here, proceedings take not so much a sharp left turn as a gentle right.  A Christmas Carol had Scrooge waking up and being a better man, but this being an eighties movie, Frank Cross still has to deal with a man with a shotgun in a TV studio and a live broadcast.

 In a spectacular fireworks show of loose-end tying, we manage to get a happy ending that includes impromptu singing, a soliloquy about the true meaning of christmas, and a mute boy being healed by the power of love.  His first words?  You guessed it: "God bless us, every one".

This could have been a spectacular failure.  Attempts to modernize classic literature are frequently terrible, especially when they play for laughs.  What makes this work is that it feels like everybody involved is willing this into being a good film.  The ensemble cast is astounding, and I know I've missed out half a dozen names from it.  Richard Donner does as good a job on this as he did on Superman.  Danny Elfman is Danny Elfman and thus the music is amazing.  Everythinhg about it has a pace and a joy that it feels more like an hour than 101 minutes.

Plus, in a very important way, it's an eighties comedy.  It's cynical, it's snarky, it's ultimately family friendly.  It goes for the smart joke rather than the dumb one in a way that mainstream comedy movies seem to have forgotten.  It's part of a dark but not mean-spirited action comedy tradition that includes Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Coming To America and Trading Places.

If you want your costume drama to feature shoulderpads instead of silk bonnets, if you feel like Bob Cratchit should have gone postal on Scrooge, if you want your Christmas Carol to feature trumpet from Miles Davis... 

This is the film for you.

1 comment:

bga said...

No "Bah, Humbug" for this film. I love it and the review is spot on in my opinion.