Here’s something you may not have realized while agonizing over Great Expectations in high school: Charles Dickens was hilarious. It may not be easy to parse his old-fashioned language, but he managed to combine withering, Swiftian satire with the frothy melodrama readers desperately wanted. Even better, he ridiculed Britain, created empathy for the downtrodden working-class (who couldn’t read but were oppressed by people who could), and used the popular techniques of melodrama to create unexpected tragedy amid relentless, dark-edged comedy. Few writers can successfully achieve such a combination, and for my money, it’s one of the reasons why he’s remembered and celebrated. The fact that so many adaptations of his work ignore the obvious comedic bent of his work frustrates me to no end. And then there’s Scrooged, which modernizes Dickens’s biting A Christmas Carol and infuses it with contemporary satire.

At the height of his star power, Bill Murray used his well-cultivated smartass persona to great effect in a string of cynical, brutal, punishing, hilarious comedies. Scrooged was the first in this series of minor masterpieces (which continued with Quick Change, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Mad Dog and Glory), brilliantly exploiting Murray’s position as the world’s most likable asshole. Here, he plays the unsubtly named Frank Cross, president of a TV network, who has completely lost his humanity. Crass, selfish, angry, and obscene, we first meet Frank complaining about the promo for an upcoming live television adaptation of A Christmas Carol (starring Buddy Hackett, Jamie Farr, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold dancers). It’s not enough that the promo makes people want to watch it, he argues. They have to feel that if they don’t watch it, the world will end. He presents his own version of the promo, the sort of terror-inducing nightmare vision that ends with a mushroom cloud. (The day after it airs, he proudly shows off a newspaper article speculating that an elderly woman died because of the stress his promo caused.)

It won’t shock you to learn that Frank abuses his employees. In that opening scene, he fires Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) for raising appropriate concerns about the promo. He also torments his assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), an underpaid single mother with three kids, one of them mute. Her Christmas bonus this year? A washcloth, in addition to her usual network-monogrammed bath towel. Everyone hates and/or fears Frank, and with good reason. Since this is a variation on A Christmas Carol, that must mean three ghosts will visit him and remind him of the person he once was and should be. He’s warned of these ghosts by his deceased former boss (John Forsythe, in appropriately disgusting rotting-corpse makeup), and in one of the subtler jokes, Frank never once realizes the parallels between what’s happening to him and what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ultimately, A Christmas Carol has the structure of a character study before the advent of psychology. There’s the exploration of Scrooge’s past, the depiction of how others perceive him, and the examination of his secret self-loathing. To use the parlance of Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko’s self-help guru/pedophile, fear motivates Scrooge instead of love. The purpose of his journey is to tap into his lost love of life and gain a new perspective.

Since Scrooged exists in a post-Freud world, this character study is bleaker and more resonant than Dickens’s. We get to see Frank as a child on Christmas Eve, glued to the TV. His mother drinks to avoid mothering and disappears (ostensibly to a bar) to avoid her husband, a snarling butcher who gives four-year-old Frank five pounds of milk-fed veal for Christmas instead of the choo-choo train he really wants. When Frank complains, his father instructs him to get a job. It’s shocking that he grew up to be a career-driven loner.

Then there’s Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), The One That Got Away. As Ghost of Christmas Past Buster Poindexter — sorry, David Johansen — takes Frank on a guided tour of his past, he’s allowed to see numerous examples of choosing career over love. He loses Claire in the process, but she is the pipeline to his humanity. A well-worn romantic-comedy conflict, the career-versus-love theme here goes deeper than the usual fluffy fare. Admittedly, Frank is career-obsessed, but Scrooged paints a portrait of a man who forces the obsession on himself in order to avoid real intimacy. He spends an entire lifetime putting up a wall around himself, and this Christmas experience echoes the words shouted by President Reagan a year before the film’s release: tear down this wall!

A combination of writing and performing sells this romance better than I would have imagined. Murray and Allen share the lived-in chemistry of a deeply connected couple who only split up because other priorities got in the way. Like Frank, Claire has put up a wall of her own — it’s just a wall that looks like selfless, altruistic action. She runs a nonprofit organization, but she gives so much of herself that she claims she has nothing left to give. Like Frank, she’s remained single, and she’s just as unhappy despite being an all-around better person. In stark contrast to their past selves, the present-day versions of the characters wear misery like a raver wears a Dr. Seuss hat: to draw attention to themselves while pretending they don’t crave the attention and love they find so lacking.

Then there’s Grace, Scrooged’s secret weapon. She provides sharp relief from the merciless story of Frank’s terrible life. As played by Woodard, she stands as a beacon of normalcy in the film’s comically cynical world. Like Bob Cratchit (the character she represents), she feels sorry for Frank more than she loathes him. She also finds the simple joys in her modest life, the sort of joys Frank finds puzzling and saccharine until he realizes how nice it is to feel real human emotions.

Despite its redemptive arc, Scrooged’s unsparing anger and negativity has prevented it from developing into a perennial classic. However, the film does a far better job of capturing Dickens’s tone than most adaptations of his work (a notable exception is Nicholas Nickleby). It’s hilarious, insightful, and as heartwarming as a movie that makes numerous jokes at the expense of frail elderly women can be.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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