I love Christmas. I love it in that obnoxiously secular way where I ignore the religious aspects and am obsessed with tradition and celebrating and family. I can’t get enough gingerbread or mulled wine. I try to stop myself from overplaying all the Christmas songs I love, but for 25 days straight, I can’t get sick of it. I even like the holiday shopping. I even like the malls.
I am a sentimental creature year round, but that aspect of my personality is only amplified over the holidays. And it’s that facet of who I am that makes it impossible for me to like Scrooged.
Scrooged is either an absurdly hypocritical film or an incredibly idiotic one. Its premise is an updated, 1980s version of A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray as the icy-hearted TV exec Frank Cross (a stand-in for Scrooge himself) that wants to sell sex and violence over giving in to the holiday spirit. That is, until three ghosts show him the error of his ways and the film ends in a joyous sing along that even the audience is invited to join in on.
While it seems faithful to the original in its structure, it’s missing a key piece of the equation: an understanding of the message. In Scrooged, Frank is responsible for creating a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol titled “Scrooge” that he’s filled with celebrities and sex. His ideas are played to the audience as not only ludicrous, but truly terrible. But in updating the Dickens classic, the film uses the exact same tactics that Frank employs on his live TV adaptation—the same tactics that we are supposed to abhor him for.
Scrooged has plenty of T&A, gore, and cynicism. If the film is unaware it’s using the very techniques it’s condemning, the screenplay is totally inept. On the other hand, if it’s self-aware and winking at the audience, it completely undercuts the message of the film rendering it inept anyway. And it’s then you have to wonder what the hell the point is.
I have a roster of Christmas films that I turn to nearly every year without fail. A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Snowman (not the Fassbinder one). Elf. It’s a Wonderful Life. Conversations about the commercialization of Christmas aside, what binds these films together is a sweetness, a sense of heart.
I don’t claim that any of these films are perfect (except The Snowman, but that short film is in a league of its own), but that’s beside the point. In fact, one of the films I love the most is one of the most problematic in modern memory, spawning an endless sea of think-pieces: Love, Actually. I happily admit its flaws, but that film at its core, with the bookending of the most saccharine narration imaginable, is trying to be sentimental. It’s sappy. It isn’t trying to be edgy.
You cannot reasonably argue otherwise. The depiction of Frank’s former mentor Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) in the Marley role, is something straight out of a horror film. His flesh gray and decaying with bits of bone jutting out here and there, the camera can’t wait to zoom in for gross-out closeups. It’s needlessly disgusting. I get the feeling that it’s being played for laughs, only it isn’t funny.
When the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Frank the holiday party that’s a standin for Fezziwig’s ball, we’re supposed to mourn his refusal to join in the fun. Only instead of a lively and festive gathering, it’s an office party where a drunk secretary handing out copies of her photocopied rear is what fills Frank with regret. The whole scene reeks of a sexual harassment nightmare that’s set up in such a way that I couldn’t be anything by completely appalled by it, particularly in our current news cycle. I’m beyond over laughing at anything swept under the rug of “boys will be boys.”
The cherry on top is Frank’s relationship with Claire (Karen Allen). Their tender moments together are mostly based around a Kama Sutra joke, which isn’t much of a basis for a relationship. Their meet-cute works well enough, but the film doesn’t really give us anything to support it. Do they have anything in common? Does Frank even care what Claire does?
This lack of knowledge means the turn when Frank grows cold and their relationship falls apart makes very little sense. Instead of building something that feels real or even focusing more on Frank’s indifference and single-minded focus on his career (as is the case with Scrooge in the story), it skews wildly off in the direction of cruelty. Right before Frank and Claire’s big fight, Frank sees his boss lecherously hit on a secretary (despite being married) and Frank greets the scene with admiration, as if he can’t wait to be successful enough to cheat on Claire.
That Claire leaves him merely for not spending enough time with her is nonsensical; that she takes him back in the end after he’s treated her so abysmally and done almost nothing to make up for it except make a speech is insane.
Scrooged has stayed something of an outlier in the modern Christmas canon since its release to mixed reviews in 1988. It’s thematic inconsistencies are no doubt why, not to mention that its humor around sexism and office shootings has aged poorly to say the least.
The holiday films that survive have something more to cling to. Even the recent love of alternative Christmas classics have a more fitting place in the season. Scrooged cannot compete with either White Christmas or Die Hard, both of which have considerably more heart. White Christmas’s hokeyness is endearing; Die Hard, while violent, is—and I say this honestly and without irony—about a man’s love for his family and his desire to do what’s right more than anything else. Scrooged can say neither. Ultimately, I don’t think Christmas films have to be perfect, but I think they should at least have a soul and Scrooged doesn’t.