Ebenezer Scrooge saw no profit in Christmas. How quaint. Scrooge would have a field day today, taking advantage of the many ways to make a buck off the holiday and taking sentimental suckers for everything they’ve got. If Dickens were alive today, he’d probably write an even more potent Christmas Carol in which Scrooge doesn’t ignore Christmas but actively works to subvert it.
In fact, he might have written something like Scrooged, an 80s, greed-isn’t-good update of the Dickens classic. The wittiest satire of television since Network, Scrooged gives us Frank Cross (Bill Murray: Cradle Will Rock, Rushmore), the “youngest president in the history of television,” the maniacal — and megalomaniacal — head of the IBC TV network. IBC’s holiday programming runs toward action flicks like The Night the Reindeer Died and cheesy variety shows like Bob Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas. But Frank’s pièce de résistance is Scrooge, a live-from-around-the-world Christmas Eve special, featuring Buddy Hackett as the old skinflint, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and a bevy of scantily clad, oh-so 80s Solid Gold Dancers. “We’ll own Christmas,” Frank announces gleefully.
Frank’s soullessness is readily apparent to all his employees, who are terrified of his capricious temper — he fires sweet Eliot Loudermilk (Bob Goldthwait: Hercules) for merely expressing an opinion. He’s nasty to his assistant, Grace (Alfre Woodard: Mumford), the Bob Cratchit stand-in, making her work late on Christmas Eve and dole out insulting presents to Frank’s “friends” and family. He steals cabs from old ladies, harasses fabulous street musicians entertaining holiday shoppers, and considers IBC’s audiences “idiots and hicks.” And he’s a lousy tipper to boot.
But Frank will get his comeuppance the Dickens way. The ghosts — including that of his former boss and mentor (John Forsythe), the golf cart chained to him imprisoning him on Earth; the wiseguy cabdriver Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen); and the kooky-fairy Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane), who shows no hesitation in punching and slapping Frank as needed — give Frank the full spooking, badgering him with reminders of the rotten childhood that soured him on the holidays and the happy hippie 60s Christmases with his onetime true love, Claire (Karen Allen). And he gets the tour of the lives of the poor but happy folks around him, and the poor but not so happy whose lives he has the ability to turn around.
Bill Murray has always been able to exude a combination of smarm, insouciance, and demented charm, and it’s perfect for a 20th-century Scrooge. Like Murray’s best work, the comedy here is angry and in your face: The scene in which Frank becomes enraged to discover that his heart is defrosting is classic Murray, as is the change-of-heart breakdown, on national television, that turns into a deranged rant about spreading Christmas cheer. You get the impression that Frank will approach his new mission of loving his fellow humans with the same slightly frightening edge he brought to his Scrooginess.
Dickens would approve.