LoveFilm Chronicles: Scrooged

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we were blessed with a surreal exploration of the psyche of a broken man, and now we move away from Werner Herzog to Richard Donner and a far more mainstream 80s comedy starring Bill Murray. At least, that's what I was expecting, because instead we once again have a surreal exploration of the psyche of a broken man.

I mean seriously, this movie is fucked up. And not in the usual way that A Christmas Carol is fucked up - though it certainly is that as well. But it's such a bizarre mix of dark, hearfelt, cruel, surreal and nasty that the film itself is certainly something to behold. That sounds like I'm declaring it a disaster, but that's not what I mean to imply. It's more that my expectations for it and the reality of it diverged so wildly that discovering the truth of the film was an experience in and of itself.

So let's do it, let's gather round, and discuss the one, the only Bill Murray...

Scrooged (1988)

Before we get into the particulars of Scroged, let's talk about A Christmas Carol. It's a classic tale at this point, told and retold every other year, and has firmly rooted itself within the cultural idea of Christmas, at least in the west. On the face of it, A Christmas Carol is a sweet story about the spirit of Christmas and how it's never too late for your heart to grow three sizes that day. But it's also, obviously, a deeply political text about the plight of the working class, and less obviously, it's completely inept at being this.

Scrooge is responsible for countless deaths at the hands of his rampant poverty, and yet he is extended limitless empathy and patience from the story. In its efforts to be warm and kind, it ends up completely sabotaging itself and functions as a vehicle for assuaging guilt. In fact, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest this focus on redemption and patience for those abusing positions of power is why the story has enjoyed such a cultural longevity.

But that's not why I bring this up, I couldn't give a shit about calling out Charles Dickens or what have you, instead it's really important context for where Scrooged comes in. This is a mainstream movie released into 1988 America, the year after Wall Street was released, the 80s have been going on a while and their unsustainable nature has begun to dawn. In that sense, Scrooged is a perfect movie for its time, a story about getting back to what matters whilst reassuring everyone that it isn't too late.

This becomes explicit within the film, as it begins with an advert for Scrooge, a production of A Christmas Carol that Frank's (Murray) TV channel will be running on Christmas Eve. Everybody wants to run an ad that focuses on the reassuring nature of Christmas; Frank wants to run an ad that scares people into watching the show by reminding them of how awful the world is. With all this, the stage is then set for Scrooged to be a sentimental 80s movie about how everything is going to be okay, with a Groundhog Day-esque Murray performance about a grump learning to love again.

But if it was just that, I don't think I'd be writing about it, because I don't think anybody would really remember it. Whilst it generically wears the skin of that film, it has a twisted sensibility which overwhelms any and all sentimentality, and in so doing becomes something dark, strange - and exciting. The kind of dangerous movie kids fall in love with because their parents have no idea what they're getting into.

A large amount of this rests on Murray's shoulders. While the script itself is not lacking in either, Bill Murray's performance is without wry charm or muted sadness, the two key elements of Murray's career. Instead, his Frank goes from callous and mean to desperate and panicked by the end. In the obviously ridiculous opening where he fires Bobcat Goldthwait, Murray's dry and disconnected performance turns it from cartoonish to precise and cruel. In the obviously heartfelt ending, when he has a change of heart and wishes well to everyone, Murray rips his performance straight out of Network as he rants breathlessly to the television camera with his bosses looking on. His journey is not one of a heart opening up but a head falling apart.

This is all compounded by Scrooged's trips into a dark surrealism. Each ghostly visit increases in intensity, we start with a shambling corpse holding Murray by the neck through the window of a skyscraper, and we end with Murray himself trapped in a coffin and burning alive. These sequences do appeal to Frank's heart, building up his relationship with Claire (Karen Allen), but even in these flashbacks Murray's performance is entirely without warmth, as Allen's is simply overflowing in it. The lack of chemistry between them is palpable, and thus the relationship can't possibly compete with the more surreal and primal existential terror that drives the movie from plot point to plot point.

All of which should make Scrooged a failure, right? The concept, the story and the script are all building a framework which the final film does not in one way deliver on, and if that's a failure then sure, I think Scrooged failed in its aims. But the film itself is so strange, intense, scary, subversive and yes, sometimes very funny that I can't help but say that I enjoyed it. Everything is so slightly off, so slightly wrong and so slightly dangerous that it has this palpable cinematic spark, bursting with energy from scene to scene, grabbing hold and never letting go til Bill Murray starts half-heartedly taunting the audience as the credits roll.

It'll never be an important film to me, a twenty-one year old in 2015, but it is among many folks I know who watched it young around the time, and I completely understand why.