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'Scrooged' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 23, 1988

Richard Donner's "Scrooged" packages an up-to-the-minute cynicism, ties it in bright ribbons and places it under the tree for unsuspecting kiddies of all ages. It's meant to be a Christmas classic for people who are too cool for Christmas classics -- a holiday perennial for a new generation of hipsters.

The film, which stars Bill Murray, takes its cue -- and most of its characters -- from the Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol," but the filmmakers have given it a topcoat of '80s-style postmodernism by having it revolve around the presentation of a live, multimillion-dollar, multinational Christmas special based on the same material (with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim and featuring the Solid Gold Dancers).

The genius behind this Christmas Eve extravaganza is Frank Cross (Murray), the youngest network chief in television history. Ruthlessly tabloid in his tastes, Cross will do anything for a ratings point. His holiday lineup features shows like "The Night the Reindeer Died" (in which a far-from-defenseless Santa and his elves are attacked by terrorists) and "Bob Goulet's Cajun Christmas." And in his view, it's not enough for audiences to want to see a show, they have to be "scared to miss it."

Cross is such a moral slug that you expect him to leave behind a slimy trail. In his treatment of those under him, he alternates between indifference and cruelty. It never registered, for example, that the reason his secretary (Alfre Woodard) wore black for a year was because her husband had died. ("I thought it was a fashion thing.")

Cross' sin is that he's cut himself off from normal emotion -- he's man without a heart. And it's for this that he -- like Ebenezer Scrooge -- must be punished. While making preparations for the broadcast late one night in his office, Cross is visited by the rotting corpse of his old boss (John Forsythe), "the man who invented the miniseries," who warns him that during the next 24 hours three ghosts will call on him. But once the grisly apparition departs, Cross attributes its presence to "Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl" and carries thoughtlessly on. During lunch the following day, though, strange visions begin to taunt him, and eventually he is whisked off in a taxi by the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) to Christmas Eve in the year 1955.

These scenes give us the back pages on Cross -- his childhood in front of the tube, his early days in TV, his failed relationship with his former girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen), a soulful waif who operates a rescue mission for the homeless and is too distracted by her do-gooding even to button her coat straight. But what they fail to do is draw us into the nightmare gravity of Cross' ordeal. Johansen's whirling-dervish energy carries us through them, but beyond establishing that Cross was once capable of decent behavior, they don't contribute anything.

The second visitation is more fun, if only for the presence of Carol Kane, who makes a sublimely pixilated Ghost of Christmas Present. Squeaking out her lines in some untraceable accent, she plays the middle spook as sort of a cross between Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz" and the Iron Sheik. Pummeling Cross mercilessly, she tugs on his lower lip, kicks him "down there," and whops him in the chops with a toaster, all the while maintaining her dainty aplomb.

It's only in these scenes with Kane that Murray seems to connect with anyone else in the cast. Murray's wormy suavity is the centerpiece of "Scrooged." Dressed in his custom-made suits, his hair crimped and pomaded, he is like a partially decomposed Ronald Colman. Nobody gives off a weirder vibe on-screen than Murray. There's something extranatural about him -- he looks mushroomy, as if he had sprouted in some dank cellar -- and his wit has a subversive, up-from-underground quality. This makes him fascinating to watch, but his slipperiness as a performer makes him one of the most unlikely stars in movie history. Even when Murray's fully engaged he's only half there, and he seems even less engaged here than usual. In "Scrooged," he keeps us poised for the next wisecrack, but too much of the material hits the same note, cops the same attitude. And while we can admire his delivery and the precision of his timing, we can't help feeling a little cheated by his shell-game style.

This partly explains why, despite the incessant action, the star personnel (on both sides of the camera) and the high-gloss, state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking, the movie seems so oddly disembodied -- like Murray, there but not there. But despite its power look, as "Scrooged" unspools, you watch with increasing indifference. The last sequence, featuring a faceless Ghost of Christmas Future, is a total bust. The screenwriting team of Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue have created a nifty, self-reflecting contraption out of the Dickens tale, but though the structure is inventive and full of possibilities, scene by scene it plays out as hopelessly old hat. Here and there, an image might strike us as perversely inspired -- Cross' suggestion that the crew staple tiny antlers onto the heads of mice to make tiny reindeer seems wonderfully sick -- or a performance might give us a jolt, but overall, the context is stiflingly impersonal. (This isn't likely to keep it from being a mammoth hit.)

"Scrooged" is a mixture of populism and disdain, but the populism isn't convincing. It's like "It's a Wonderful Life" told from the Lionel Barrymore character's point of view and made by people who secretly liked him best.

If Donner and his team had any interest in the story's message, they've picked a puzzling way to show it. Ecstatic over his second chance at life, Cross breaks in on the special and, speaking directly into the camera, urges everyone around the world to embrace the miracle of Christmas and make it work the whole year 'round. This isn't so much an ending as a collapse. To convey his good tidings he lapses into party-animal mode, bellowing and boogalooing in the bleary, mega-groovy manner of his "Saturday Night Live" lounge lizard, which means that regardless of the conviction in the words, the reading undercuts it, giving what should be a jubilant, high-spirited speech a tone of irony.

In this case, though, irony is the movie's escape hatch. It allows the filmmakers to stage maudlin bits -- like having Woodard's mute baby speak -- and, at the same time, signal the audience that they're too cool to actually believe in them. In trashing their message, they leave us feeling trashed, too. Their cool is all-purpose, and it carries with it a note of genuine nastiness. They manipulate us into a sentimental response, then kick us in the teeth for buying it.

Scrooged is rated PG-13

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