13 December 2009

CHRISTMAS CAROLS: THE MODERN-DAY VERSION

For any familiar story set in a very particular historical context, eventually some creative soul will hit on the idea of a contemporary update. It is thus probably inevitable that A Christmas Carol got moved into the modern day; this happened several times, in fact, considering both cinematic and television adaptations (I cannot say that there are any theatrical modern-dress versions, but I should be a bit amazed if there were not).

I think it likely that the most popular of these modern-day Carols - at any rate, it remains the highest-grossing - is 1988's Scrooged, a peculiarly high-concept version of the story directed by action-comedy specialist Richard Donner, of all unlikely people: even more unlikely is that this movie nestles into his filmography directly between Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2. And if Donner may have seemed a tremendously unintuitive choice to make this project, the most unlikely thing of all is that Scrooged works rather well as not just a comic revision of Dickens's novella, but as a Richard Donner film, tricked-out with fairly costly special effects and a crackling pace that rips along like a caffeine buzz. By no means is this the definitive version of the story, or even a particularly outstanding 1980s high-concept comedy (and it's easy to forget just how many absurdly high-concept comedies there were in the '80s), but it remains an awfully entertaining affair right up until its slightly too mawkish finale - although mawkishness is something entirely present in the source material, so it's just as well not to blame Donner or the writers, Saturday Night Live vet Michael O'Donoghue, or the green Mitch Glazer, who would 10 years later write another modern-day Dickens update, the Alfonso CuarĂ³n-directed Great Expectations.

In this version of the well-trod tale, Scrooge is actually named Frank Cross (Bill Murray), the youngest president in the history of the IBC television network. It's the week before Christmas in New York City, and Frank is about to see his brain-child come to life: a live adaptation of A Christmas Carol (which is invariably referred to as Scrooge) starring Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and John Houseman as the narrator, in a production set to air on Christmas Eve. Being a TV executive in a movie - and, more to the point, the protagonist of A Christmas Carol - Frank is naturally a tremendously venal and business-driven sort, the kind of bloke who'd concoct the most appallingly cynical advertisement for his project, involving exploitative imagery and the spectre of death, and consider it a publicity coup when the blaring, nasty thing manages to give an elderly woman a fatal heart attack.

To him, Christmas is nothing but a marketing opportunity, and of course he has to learn his lesson: on the evening of December 23, he is visited by the decaying remains of his old boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), who gives him the spiel: three ghosts, lest you end up like me (that is, a rotting corpse doomed to roam the earth, none of that "heavy chains" stuff). The ghosts come in their due course: Past (David Johansen) is a cabbie with pointed ears who uses his taxi to travel back to Frank's childhood and then move forward to remind the sinner of his one true love, Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), now operating a homeless shelter; Present (Carol Kane) is a tittering, butterfly-like fairy who keeps belting Frank alongside the face to push him from one grim vignette to another; Future is a terrifying skeleton with mutated human-like creatures living in its chest cavity, and a television where its face should be.

Relative to the standard forms of the story, Scrooged spends an awful lot of time in the non-ghostly present: Frank's spirit-driven lessons are only interruptions in his very busy December 24, which finds him not only confronting the demons of his lost love, but worrying about being replaced in his position by the smarmy Brice Cummings (John Glover). No doubt this is driven in large part by the requirements of being a Billy Murray comedy with romantic overtones: the point of the story is much more about his slick, lizard-like executive being crushing and dickish to his underlings, especially a sad-sack named Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), and Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), a single mother of four living in a small house in Harlem, this movie's version of Bob Cratchit. That would absolutely have been the draw of a Bill Murray vehicle in 1988; having the chance to see him ply his well-practiced trade as scummy and sarcastic. And in this respect, at least, Scrooged absolutely delivers, for nobody could do this kind of character better than he.

This is, however, a double-edged sword: because Murray always had a strange tendency to make heartless, sardonic assholes seem somewhat likable. At the very least, we don't typically want them to stop being sardonic assholes. And of course, the very nature of the Christmas Carol framework is that Frank must eventually learn the true spirit of Christmas and give Grace a big raise and finally decide that loving Claire matters more than being the best executive in television history, and all that. There's no real urgency to the emotions of that scenario, simply because we're never really invested in Frank's transformation; and at any rate, his big post-spirit moment of generosity and celebration is by far the worst scene in the whole film, a giant love-in that doesn't really make any sense according to either our rules or the rules of the film's world, and commits the deadly sin of being schmaltzy without having any gags, for the most part.

That massive false step aside - though it takes a lot of effort to forgive a bad final scene, given its prominence in one's post-movie reminiscing - Scrooged is a pretty darn funny black comedy, with a distinctly cruel edge for what is, all things considered, a chipper movie about finding the spirit of love for the rest of humankind &c. The sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present is a particularly spasmodic mess of slapstick, verbal barbs, and garish silliness (it also tests the outermost reaches of one's love for Carol Kane and her chirpy voice), but it works well for what it's trying to achieve, and assuming that one has gone into the film ready and eager for a comedy of this particularly '80s-esque flavor, there's little in it that disappoints.

The more over-sized Donnervian touches are equally satisfying: I can name no Christmas Carol variant that feels so likely to drift away into popcorn-movie territory, unless it is the recent Robert Zemeckis adaptation. There are a surprising number of ambitious effects, using all the state of the art in '88: Lew Hayward pulling Frank through a glass window, or the Ghost of Christmas Future rising ominously on a bank of television screens. The tenor of the piece is much more Ghostbusters than Dickens, at any rate, although it helps that Donner was unusually gifted at helming such movies in the 1980s; his visual style is not tremendously distinguished, but it is clean and efficient, and his brisk handling of pace and mood keeps the film from ever getting terribly boring or serious. No Lethal Weapon is Scrooged, but that leaves a lot of room for it to work, and fairly well.

If the film enjoys classic status, I think that is mostly owed to the nostalgia of the '80s generation that currently drives most of the conversation around pop culture artifacts; but it works well enough that I'm not inclined to quibble. A meaningful Christmas Carol this is not, but a perfectly entertaining yuletide comedy this certainly is; a fine relic from a sadly bygone age when zippy little romcoms could enjoy the conceptual richness and production values now largely reserved for summer comic book movies.

1 comment:

javi75 said...

I loved this movie as a kid, haven't watched it in many years.

his visual style is not tremendously distinguished, but it is clean and efficient, and his brisk handling of pace and mood keeps the film from ever getting terribly boring or serious. No Lethal Weapon is Scrooged, but that leaves a lot of room for it to work, and fairly well.

Maybe you should do a Richard Donner retrospective some day, seeing how you quit on Pakula... (hey, he used to work with great cinematographers too. And you probably love Lady Hawk? Well, maybe you should do some cinematographer's retrospective. Next year it's Dick Tracy's 20th anniversary. I hope someone at Disney remembers that and releases it on blu-ray).