Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert got into a big argument on their TV show back in the 1980s because of the film Back to the Future: Part II. Ebert thought it was a perfectly enjoyable screwball comedy, but Siskel found it lacking in a certain quality that the first film in the series had. “The first film had a heart to it, and I don’t think there’s any reason why a screwball comedy couldn’t take time out to have heart. . . . I really found it kind of unpleasant to watch in a way.” Ebert conceded that the first film moved the audience emotionally, and the second film didn’t do that, but I don’t understand what either of them were talking about here. There’s nothing heartwarming about the story of a boy who doesn’t like his parents, and then inadvertently changes them into likable people and ends up richer. I think people are desperate to see heart in a movie any chance they get, even if it doesn’t belong there, and when they can’t see it, they feel like the movie is missing something fundamental. Frankly, this is nonsense.
Heart is a very delicate thing – it can easily turn to sap if the filmmaker isn’t careful, but it amazes me how many people will take heart even when it is sappy crap. I’ll never understand how anyone can watch the climax of the movie Elf without vomiting rainbows and pooping out snowflakes – it’s just disgusting – but this is the only way most people want to feel when they watch a Christmas movie. This is the only way I can make sense of Ebert’s very harsh review of 1988’s Scrooged, which he thought was so horribly lacking in the heart of the original story that it seemed to him like the filmmakers must not have read it, especially because of Murray’s particularly harsh performance in the film. I, in turn, wonder if Ebert has ever read the story, because this film captures exactly what the story needs to be in order to be applicable to the modern era.
The original story by Dickens is not exactly a light, fun, and heartwarming story – at least not until the end. Scrooge is a thoroughly horrible person, and it is very important to the story that he starts off without a shred of human decency. He doesn’t care if the poor and hungry die, arguing it would “decrease the surplus population.” While it may be tempting for some to feel that Murray should have been more like his funny characters in Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, this would completely undercut the story’s message. We want to be those characters in those films, but it is crucial that Murray’s character in this film is not very likable in this film – even a Tony Stark type would be too charming for the story to function. Also, a writer that wants to be purely heartfelt and whimsical would use Faeries of Christmas Past, not ghosts, but this story is designed to be so eerie and dark that the light of Christmas morning is like a breath of fresh air for the reader. Much like with Our Town, the story makes its case well because it forecasts death and doom, and it uses its darkness in order to keep the positive message from being so cheery as to seem unrealistic and so sweet as to seem disgusting, while also motivating the audience to live better lives.
It’s also important that the film take the heartless approach that it does to most of the film because it’s not a straight adaptation of the story: it’s a modern-day comedy, and that has different requirements than a traditional adaptation or a drama would. Comedy, unlike what many people suppose, is not a particularly cheery genre by nature – it’s actually, in its purest form, quite brutal. Comedy assaults the ego, making a mockery of humankind and all of its accomplishments, revealing absurdity in the things we hold most sacred, including Christmas. This movie understands that, so it makes Murray a total jerk, the man he fires a drunken psycho, and the Ghost of Christmas Present a cartoony, merciless sadist, creating the sense that the film must have been directed by Yakko Warner or Daffy Duck. It also modernizes the story with a Nora Ephron approach before the films of Ephron’s era of romantic comedy even came out: it addresses the old story it’s retelling pretty directly, displays skepticism towards its relevance or believably in the post-Vietnam era, dismisses it as pure fiction, and then ultimately decides to go along with it anyway. The films of the late ’80s and 1990s that revisited old stories and genres had a different audience that was not as willing to believe in stories with pure and concentrated heart, so the smart ones knew to tell the audiences that they knew the story was a silly fairy tale, and this allowed the audience to humor it anyway. This film uses its dark humor wisely to give the audience the licence to believe in an otherwise unbelievable story, which is exactly what it needed to do.
It’s interesting to compare Scrooged to other modern Christmas classics, such as Elf, which have a lot more heart to them. With Elf, not everything is sweet: his father is a jerk at the start, and the people of New York are initially reticent about embracing Christmas cheer, but these scenes with real-world problems and minor profanity are used to make the unrealistically jolly world where people say “cotton-headed ninny-muggins” seem entirely absurd. The film then makes an awkward turn-around towards the end and insists that the world of jolliness must entirely trump the world of the normal people, as though the jolliness is inexplicably no longer absurd, but an important part of the human experience. This is easily accepted by the people of New York without believable justification, and everything feels excruciatingly forced. In Scrooged, on the other hand, nobody ever has to believe in the ghosts Murray encountered, and the characters only go along with Murray’s musical number because he’s crazy enough to fire them if they don’t and the TV crew is being held at gunpoint by a lunatic. One film makes the case that faithful belief, even in something everyone in real life knows is obviously a lie, is intrinsically good, the other makes the case that we sometimes have to embrace a little bit of craziness because we’re a desperate, crazy species in a depraved, crazy world, which is clearly more honest and ethical.
In short, even though I have my issues with it, this is already one of my favorite Christmas movies. It’s over-the-top, delightfully dark, and incredibly clever, even if it could use a few more laughs than it has. It’s another one of those movies that feels like an ’80s movie should: it’s too dark for it to be made as a kid’s film today, but too childlike to be a movie for adults today, so it’s right in the sweet spot. Its costumes, sets, and special effects are just right, and it even has a little bit of a Tim Burton feel to it, which is probably largely due to Danny Elfman’s perfectly fitting score. I will say that I thought some of it could have been a little bit more original. (For example, I got the impression that the Ghosts of Christmas Past wouldn’t be literal ghosts, but real people whom Murray’s character interprets to be the ghosts, but they went the boring literal way, which I guess worked out fine because of their unique casting choices for the first two ghosts.) If you’re looking for Rankin-Bass levels of good holiday cheer, you and Roger Ebert can go look elsewhere, but this is the film I’m looking forward to watching at Christmastime for years to come.