A bit of both, actually.
As Frank Cross, the youngest president in the history of network television and a card-carrying curmudgeon whose motto seems to be “Always kick a man when he’s down,” Murray embodies the misanthropy of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.
Frank is a corporate cutthroat, a cheapskate despite his million-dollar tax bracket, a bit of a boozer, and a regular W.C. Fields when it comes to kids and furry animals.
One Christmas Eve he’s busily supervising last-minute preparations for a kitschy live-TV broadcast of Scrooge (an abomination starring Buddy Hackett in the title role, musical interludes by the Solid Gold Dancers, and a special appearance by gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim).
Despite his hectic schedule, Frank still finds time to observe the season by firing an underling (comic Bobcat Goldthwait) who has dared to accuse him of tastelessness. He makes life miserable for his Girl Friday (Alfre Woodard in the Bob Cratchit role) and snubs his good-natured brother (John Murray, who really is Bill’s sibling).
Then he runs into his long-gone mentor, a once-powerful network bigwig (John Forsythe beneath tons of makeup) who has returned from the dead to turn Frank from his evil ways.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story.
Well, if the tale’s overall arc is familiar, some of the details are delightfully oddball.
The Ghost of Christmas Past (musician/actor David Johansen) is a cackly, rheumy, green-toothed cabbie who hauls Frank back to his boyhood haunts in a supernatural taxi.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is a sort of scatter-brained Tinkerbell (Carol Kane) who sweetly gets Frank’s attention by slapping him around.
Romantic interest is provided by Karen Allen (yes, the Raiders of the Lost Ark Karen Allen) as a poor but dedicated community organizer whom Frank once loved. Robert Mitchum gets a rare shot at comedy as Frank’s big boss, who has just received a study about how more pets are watching TV and wants Frank to program accordingly.
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Don’t expect anything radically innovative in Murray’s performance ... that wouldn’t happen for another decade with 1998’s Rushmore. Writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue (both Saturday Night Live alums) tailor their script to fit the familiar Murray persona, and director Richard Donner (a veteran of the Christopher Reeve Superman and Lethal Weapon series) never lets anything resembling cinematic style get in the way of his star’s comic riffing.
Lovers of Dickens may feel a bit let down. For while the plot elements are all there, the cathartic emotional release that always has been the most salient characteristic of A Christmas Carol is just about buried in the yuks.
Murray plays Frank with his patented snide, supercilious, wiseguy approach. As a result we’re always conscious that this is Bill Murray spoofing a famous story. In other words, an elaborate SNL skit.
Result: Lots of laughs, but the real heart of the yarn is nearly lost. Only in the final moments, when Frank breaks into his network’s live Christmas Day broadcast to display his sudden transformation, does Scrooged hook our heartstrings.
Other films in the series “A Very Dickens Christmas”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 1: A Christmas Carol (1951) Not Rated
- December 8: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Rated G
- December 15: A Christmas Carol (2009) Rated PG
- December 22: Scrooged (1988) Rated PG-13
- December 29: Scrooge (1970) Rated G
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.