‘Scrooged’ Is Your Misanthropic Holiday Classic For The Ages
“Scrooged is one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. “It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger.” That review stuck with me for a long time. How can I so thoroughly enjoy a film that a learned man considers to be aesthetic sewage? His logic is sound and I am incapable of refuting him, after all.
The answer, I understand now, lies in my experience of the holiday. Ebert was right, but he went into the film devoid of misanthropy. He went into it with hope. Meanwhile, I associate Christmas, almost exclusively, with pain and anger. And Scrooged is indeed defined by pain and anger. But where Ebert considers that negative, I consider it a huge selling point. I don’t want a film to sell me on how awesome Christmas is if you have a giant house in Chicago. I want a film that shows the emotional brutality of the season without making me feel like shit about it. For this reason, I consider Scrooged a miracle of a film – it’s joyously misanthropic. It’s committed with all of its heart and soul to being a truly unpleasant Christmas movie.
Consider the first scene. Bill Murray is previewing the network promos. There’s a trailer for a film where Santa Claus meets the Six Million Dollar Man. The tone is already ugly and pissed off. This version of the North Pole is ugly. Not just visually, but morally too. Everyone in Santa’s workshop is yelling at each other. Santa has no charisma. His wife hates him. There are guns everywhere. “It’s Lee Majors! The Six Million Dollar Man!” yells the Santa Claus of an alcoholic’s fever dream. Scrooged is so misanthropic that even the ironically bad film-within-a-film is viscerally hostile.
Eventually we see Bill Murray. It’s 1988 and he’s almost done making movies like this, and every line on face shows it. He’s still an amoral drunken clown here, but there’s a newfound bitterness to it. A sense that he should be doing something better someplace else. And that hostility works for his character. When he says of the promo that “they have gotta be so SCARED to miss it – so TERRIFIED!” there’s an exciting darkness to him.
Then we see his spec promo. It has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s just footage of exploding airplanes and highway killers. Antithetical to the Christmas spirit. But where a normal movie would only hint at such a thing, this movie actually shows it to us. We stare down the barrel of the shotgun of the highway killer, and we’re not even out of the first scene.
A strange knowingness permeates Scrooged, a sense that the filmmakers could have been doing something better but chose not to. Example. Bill Murray’s boss is played by the legendarily hard-drinking character actor Robert Mitchum. A genius performer, capable of elevating almost anything if the script is good. But this script is deliberately lazy. Robert Mitchum, whose father died at the hand of a runaway train in 1919 South Carolina, strolls in and mutters something illogical and embarrassing about training puppies to watch television. There is no reason for him to be here, and that’s hilarious.
Later, we see Bill Murray walking around Chicago. Miles Davis is playing saxophone on the street. It’s ethereal and atmospheric and just cool. So what does the movie do with that world of aesthetic potential? Well, it lingers on it for two seconds before Bill Murray mutters “why don’t the cops do something about this?” as he walks to his car.
Murray is then confronted by a dead man, explaining that ghosts will visit to teach him the folly of his ways (one of the film’s clever allusions to A Christmas Carol). Here, Murray, pissed largely about the disrepair of his liquor cabinet, delivers the best and most misanthropic line of the movie: “You are a hallucination, brought on by alcohol…Russian vodka…poisoned by Chernobyl.”
Where most Christmas movies are whimsical, this one is stubbornly realistic. When the dead man dangles Murray out a window, it’s not funny or symbolic or anything. It is not played for comedy at all. It’s simply unsettling. This only escalates when we finally see the Ghost of Christmas Past: David Johansen, the lead singer of the New York Dolls. He’s not interested in teaching Murray a lesson, just on getting his rocks off. He seems to be driving drunk. Fleetingly, we see a man Murray fired 5 minutes ago, and he’s somehow drunk and homeless already. Immediately drunk and homeless.
There continues to be no Christmas magic. There are no musical montages set to a happy holiday song. No celebration. Slowly, the film spirals out of control and becomes a confusing din of fire and noise. A great shot in the third act suggests they forgot a Christmas movie was being made at all. It’s just Murray drinking Stolichnaya and Tab as he watches a killing moon descend on Chicago.
Murray slowly changes as basic script convention dictates. He’s clearly not learning anything, he’s just having flashes of alcoholic sentimentality as chaos surrounds him. Eventually he sees the Ghost of Christmas Future, who sends him to hell, where he is burned to death for awhile. Then there are guns, and more fire and noise. And suddenly, for no damn reason at all, the film embraces a positivity that rings wholly false, skirting the realm of watchability only barely, so great is Bill Murray’s stage presence. The only part of the film that seems dishonest is the part where everybody learns the true meaning of Christmas. That part doesn’t work at all, almost deliberately. Does anybody here enjoy making movies?
The strangest thing is that, if one is of a particular mindset, it all works. Maybe it’s because whimsy is a disease that has consumed millennial culture, and this film is openly disgusted by whimsy. Here is a Christmas comedy (with the guy from Ghostbusters) that takes childlike joy in exactly nothing. It’s ugly, antisocial, and bitter as hell – a 90 minute post-Reagan cocaine hangover starring a man visibly burned out on doing comedy. It’s all humiliation and terror lurching toward an ending that makes no sense.
And that’s all wonderful. Roger Ebert was absolutely right: pain and anger defines Scrooged, to the point where I wonder if it was scribbled on the walls of the writer’s room. But for a lot of us, that’s what Christmas is all about. Pain and anger can be funny. Really, it’s just comforting to see a movie as stubborn and doomed as we are.