Bill Murray wanted the world to know that all the screaming was not his idea. “How do you plan to explain your one-star review of Scrooged?” he demanded, his face covered with shaving cream in a hotel bathroom, sassing the all-universe film critic Roger Ebert during a 1990 interview to promote some other movie. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come up,” Ebert replied. But Scrooged—perhaps the strangest, angriest, and most polarizing entry in the Classic Christmas Flick canon—is hard to shake off. Nearly two years after Ebert denounced it as “one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time,” Murray still wanted to argue about it. And 30 years later, as another media-dense holiday season dawns, plenty of people—most likely including several members of your family—will still want to rewatch it.
The star of the movie is not one of those people. “It wasn’t that bad,” Murray told Ebert. “It had some good stuff in it. Watch it on video and you’ll see.” His main purpose in bringing it up mid-shave was to throw Scrooged director Richard Donner under the proverbial sleigh. “Did you have some disagreements with the director?” Ebert wanted to know. “Only a few,” Murray replied. “Every single minute of the day. That could have been a really, really great movie. The script was so good. There’s maybe one take in the final-cut movie that is mine. We made it so fast, it was like doing a movie live. He kept telling me to do things louder, louder, louder. I think he was deaf.”
Scrooged hit theaters on November 23, 1988, and is, indeed, phenomenally loud, and also very mean, and somehow also ultimately heartening, in a loopy yuletide sort of way. A Charles Dickens update spiked with Reagan-era boob-tube cynicism, it stars Murray as the tyrannical Frank Cross, “the youngest president in the history of television,” who is overseeing a live Christmas Eve production of A Christmas Carol by terrorizing everyone in sight. “Oh my gosh, does that suck,” he declares to a conference room full of cowering underlings, furious that the show’s promos are too tepid. “Now I have to kill all of you.”
He grudgingly gives towels as gifts. He steals cabs from old ladies, and recuts the live Christmas Carol ad with so much random violence that it scares an 80-year-old woman to death. He throws down Tab-and-vodka cocktails. He fires a cowering underling played by Bobcat Goldthwait who later returns, stinking drunk, with a shotgun. He heckles a crew of NYC sidewalk buskers that includes Miles Davis. He ignores his saintly brother and menances his even more saintly assistant, Grace (Alfre Woodard), ripping down a picture drawn by her young son, Calvin, who went mute after witnessing his own father’s murder. (Try to guess Calvin’s only line, Dickens fans.) He turns his back on his true love, a homeless-shelter worker played by a beaming Karen Allen. And yes, apparently per his director’s instructions, he barks most of his lines, including “Bah humbug.” Naturally, he is visited by three Christmas spirits, one of whom kicks him in the nuts.
Every December, a dozen or so Christmas movies clog up America’s basic-cable channels and holiday-themed DVD displays. It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story are the nostalgia-drenched benchmarks. A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are the kids-of-all-ages delights. (The original Grinch, not the Jim Carrey one or the Tyler, the Creator one.) Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation are for the slapstick misanthropes. Love Actually is for the rom-com fanatics. The Nightmare Before Christmas is for the goths. And Die Hard is for the internet wiseguys.
Scrooged tosses all of that—the nostalgia, the misanthropy, the goopy sentimentality, the cartoonish violence and Spielbergian horror imagery just gnarly enough to spook young children—into the noisiest possible blender. Its 1988-specific theme, TV Is Rotting Our Brains, more or less positions it as a Christmas reboot of Network, which might seem like an awfully dated concept now, until you watch it again with your family and observe that they all spend half the movie staring at their phones. Murray’s performance is so caustic for so long—“The bitch hit me with a toaster,” he observes, of the Ghost of Christmas Present—that his eventual redemption has to be very lengthy (and extra loud) to be remotely convincing. The whole thing is remarkably shrill, which, alas, makes it remarkably well-suited for our fraught present moment. Watch it on video and you’ll see.
You may recall maligned Scrooged director Richard Donner as the guy who did the original Superman, The Goonies, and all four Lethal Weapon movies; you may recall Bill Murray as the guy who plays Bill Murray for a living. Scrooged came along four years after Ghostbusters (’84), five years before Groundhog Day (’93), and 10 years shy of Rushmore (’98), which rebooted him as a soulful-clown plaything for the likes of Wes Anderson and, most effectively, Sofia Coppola. But Murray’s best characters are just the purest, least-fictionalized expressions of the man himself, that permanently viral goofball we love and don’t really know at all. His single best line in the past 20 years, allegedly delivered to strangers he randomly (and allegedly) accosts in New York City, is “No one will ever believe you.” Even if he’s never actually said it.
But we’re in trouble if Scrooged reflects anything of his genuine self. The whole point of A Christmas Carol, from the 1901 version to the Mickey Mouse version, is that Scrooge is a dick right up until the moment he isn’t, whereupon he delivers a Don’t Be a Dick speech and the credits roll. But Murray is viscerally cruel for most of this movie, embodying a soulless corporate drone with much more zeal than is necessary or even advisable. “I’m a widow of business,” he yells at himself, stomping off to a homeless shelter so he can convince Karen Allen to stop caring about homeless people. “When I want a wife, I’m gonna buy one.” Even in Dickensian context, there’s no way you’re rooting for this guy if anybody else on earth was playing him.
New York Dolls frontman David Johansen is your Ghost of Christmas Past, chain-smoking cigars and piloting a gypsy cab. (His Dolls bandmate, Arthur Kane, had a very strange reaction to this movie.) Carol Kane (no relation, sheesh) is your toaster-wielding Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost of Christmas Future spooked 10-year-old me pretty good. It is a profound relief when all these story beats are dispensed with and Evil Bill Murray transforms into Sweet Bill Murray again, but it turns out that this iteration of Sweet Bill Murray is even shoutier: “I’M ALIVE! HOLY SHIT, WHAT A BREAK!”
His climactic Don’t Be a Dick speech is delivered on live television and takes nearly 10 minutes and is delivered with an intensity that is, if we’re being Roger Ebert–caliber honest, disquieting and unsettling. “WHAT! are you doing watching TELEVISION! on CHRISTMAS EVE!” he thunders, and by the time he’s bellowing about how “THE MIRACLE CAN HAPPEN TO YOU,” it’s conceivable that this scene will never end. It’s less tear-jerking than tear-pummeling. He is a one-man live-action comment section, and it is glorious, and also whatever the opposite of glorious is.
It took that much pure volume, one supposes, to rise above the cable-TV hellscape in 1988, which makes Scrooged one of the very few Christmas movies capable of rising above the maximum-internet hellscape of 2018. It’s the crowd-pleasing and wildly unnerving holiday fable we deserve. Fifteen years later, in 2003, two new movies secured their own places in the Classic Christmas Flick pantheon by splitting Scrooged exactly in half. Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa took all the uncut malevolence, black-hearted to the last; Will Ferrell’s Elf took the raucous and breathless glee, another oversized kid crashing around Santa’s workshop and pumping up the holiday cheer with pure sweat and maximum energy.
Play both those movies simultaneously and crank up the volume and you’ll get Scrooged, which if absolutely nothing else will get everyone in your family to look up from his or her phone, even if just for a second, just to see whether Bill Murray is, like, OK. He isn’t. He was ahead of his time even then, and he knows of which he screams. He’s merry as hell, and he’s not going to take this anymore.