A Christmas Carol (review)

Christmas Nightmare

There’s something about Jim Carrey that I find highly intriguing, and it’s the something that’s very dark and bleak in him. It’s not a quality of his that often gets played to — in fact, I first noticed this about him in the otherwise terrible psychological thriller The Number 23, a few years back, in which he portrayed a man descending into insanity, because it seemed as if the film was terrified of unleashing that aspect of Carrey. It struck me then that almost everything we’ve ever seen Carrey do — comedy and drama alike — has been terrified of what looks to me like rage in him, and so it gets corralled into a grinning, hyper mania that is somehow perceived as “safe” because it’s “just” “funny.”
I’d love to see what Carrey would do with the Joker for a director who was willing to harness that rage. (The Riddler for a hack like Joel Schumacher? *shudder*)

I might have said, too, that Ebenezer Scrooge could be a good fit for that rage. The simmering bitterness of decades of Dickens’ antihero seems uniquely suited to a new interpretation of Scrooge by Carrey in the hands of maybe a Darren Aronofsky or a Kathryn Bigelow, someone who would give the story a horror-movie treatment we haven’t quite seen before.

But not this Christmas Carol. Not from Robert Zemeckis, who appears to have given up making fantasies for grownups (Forrest Gump, Contact) in favor of making theme-park attractions designed to do nothing more than shut the kiddies up for 90 minutes, if they can sit still for that long for the dazzling (see also: The Polar Express). This Christmas Carol panders to the audience at the same time it’s insulting us: it assumes we’re unable to appreciate a classic of long standing and ongoing, perennial enjoyment unless it’s dressed up in 3D IMAX drag and sends us on roller coaster rides through the streets of Victorian London. Hell, it assumes we don’t even know this is spun out of one of the most famous works by one of the most famous writers ever — that’s why the opening credits actually condescend to inform us that this is “based on the classic story by Charles Dickens” (emphasis mine).

Zemeckis, who also wrote the screenplay, has nothing at all new to bring to the story of the miserly, antisocial Scrooge who gets a wakeup call one Christmas Eve via the ministrations of three ghosts who show him the error of his ways… never mind if today’s new atmosphere of meanness and every-man-for-himself-ness suggests that some modern spin might have been found. (Just because Dickens was indicting the heartless capitalism and government abandonment of the poor of his era doesn’t mean there’s any application in the 21st century. None at all.) Unless you find it clever and amusing to get virtually sprayed in the face by Marley’s ghostly spittle coming out at you in 3D — that’s new, I guess. Oh, and there is the chase sequence. You mean you don’t remember the bit in Dickens where Scrooge gets chased through the snowy London streets by demonic red-eyed horses till he shrinks down to the size of a mouse… with accompanying squeaky Scrooge mouse voice, of course? (I so wish I were making that up.) That’s a Zemeckis contribution.

That might be the worst thing about this literally Disneyfied take on A Christmas Carol: Zemeckis appears to think that Scrooge is a comic figure, not a tragic one. He gets buffeted around like Wile E. Coyote. He suffers much physical abuse at the hands of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (all of which Carrey also supplies the voices of). The psychological and emotional assault he’s meant to be under simply isn’t as interesting to Zemeckis, and mostly gets foisted off as supposedly sad looks in the zombie eyes of the waxy faces of the CGI-animated people whose misfortunes the ghosts force Scrooge to witness.

Carrey was able to transcend the makeup he had to endure in the equally misfired Grinch adaptation a few years ago in order to make that character searingly pitiful. But he can’t overcome the motion-capture technology that renders him into an actual cartoon here. His Scrooge — just as uncomfortably synthetic looking as all the other “people” onscreen — becomes just one more element that makes this Christmas Carol creepy in all the wrong ways, and in none of the right ones.

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