When Allison Williams and Christopher Walken took to the small screen in NBC’s live-action “Peter Pan” earlier this month, I could only think of one person: Mary Lou Retton.
The former Olympian wasn’t a member of NBC’s troupe. But she was in a fictional show that presaged that spectacle: The transcontinental, live-action adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” at the center of “Scrooged,” Richard Donner’s 1988 TV-business takeoff of Charles Dickens’s Yuletide tale.
Starring Bill Murray as the Ebenezer Scrooge stand-in — he plays the grouchy executive Frank Cross, whose spirit of Christmas is rooted more in ratings than good cheer — “Scrooged” has settled into the Yuletide-movie firmament over the past 26 years. ABC Family has the rights to it this year, and the network will air it at midnight on Saturday and again on Christmas; Al Green and Annie Lennox’s sparkling cover of “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” is in holiday radio rotation despite never explicitly mentioning the season; and the Somerville cocktail haven Backbar will host a “Scrooged”-themed “immersive cocktail experience” — a screening and drinks in honor of each ghost that visits Cross over the course of the movie — on Sunday night. (Tickets cost $40, plus fees.)
Murray is by turns ruthless and beleaguered as the ghost-beset Cross, his quick-moving wit well-suited to the shark-like fervor required to be an executive. His seemingly spontaneous asides about the TV business are precisely timed, and his interactions with his secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) are just cringe-inducing enough to seem inspired by true-life events. Ultimately, Murray’s portrayal of a jerk with a heart of not quite gold, but perhaps silver, brings to mind his inhabiting of “Ghostbusters” chief yukster Peter Venkman — only this version has considerably more drive than the slacker professor.
When he’s not miming power moves, Murray’s romantic sparks with Karen Allen, who plays the relentlessly good-hearted Claire Phillips, have a genuine sweetness. The love story isn’t too played up; there’s too much other stuff going on with Cross on his chaotic Christmas Eve. But Allen’s weary cheer bounces off Murray beautifully, and her ability to transform the high-powered executive into a guy who could be nicknamed “Lumpy” is heartwarming.
The rest of the cast seems to be somewhat liberated by the combination of classic story and in-joke-filled satire. Bob Goldthwait, who plays the down-on-his-luck Eliot Loudermilk, makes you want to give him a hug as he sinks deeper into post-termination stupor, while John Glover’s toady climber Brice Cummings could have waltzed right into “American Psycho” with little incident. Carol Kane’s turn as the whooping, oddly violent Ghost of Christmas Present remains gloriously unhinged; David Johansen’s cigar-chomping Ghost of Christmas Past oozes a very particular Noo Yawk grunginess. (Note that this movie also has jazz legend Miles Davis, playing a busker, and crooner Robert Goulet, playing himself, on its roster.)
And the TV landscape in which Cross is working, designed to be a take-off on how far into ridiculousness the medium would go, actually seems ... well, kind of quaint, especially when compared to the current media landscape. The “Christmas Carol” retelling, which stars an inevitably backflipping Retton as Tiny Tim, has cast Buddy Hackett and Jamie Farr; the dance troupe from the pop showcase “Solid Gold,” clad in too-revealing leotards that might torpedo the show's family-friendly positioning, is also on board. Performances are scattered across continents, because they can be.
Perhaps the most telling sign of how “Scrooged” predicted the present comes when head honcho Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum) takes Cross aside to seriously tell him that according to a recent study, pets are watching television these days, so maybe the network could throw in a dormouse to keep the cats interested. It’s a knowing wink at TV’s eyeballs-at-any-cost strategy, although now that a “24/7 digital TV channel with dog-friendly programming” actually exists — it’s called DogTV — the joke seems to be on the present day.
The ever-growing cult around Murray, who thanks to the goodwill fostered by his body of work and his willingness to mess with people’s heads has become sort of a poster boy for aspiring American raconteurs, might be largely responsible for “Scrooged” celebrations like the one at Backbar on Sunday. But “Scrooged” also works so well now because its satire seemed a bit ahead of its time then. Roger Ebert gave the movie a single star upon its release, calling it “one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time” and citing Murray’s “one-liners that are at right-angles to the material, blocking the flow of the story.” (And I, who was 13 when I saw “Scrooged” at the local multiplex, definitely didn’t get some of the racier double-entendres scattered throughout.)
Sure, in 1988, a TV executive calling for a production assistant to staple antlers to a mouse’s head to fit a particular motif seemed outlandish. But it’s also a sign of the technology that wasn’t available 26 years ago — look no further than the Tupac Shakur hologram that debuted at Coachella two years ago, the technology of which could probably be repurposed for a tinier organism. The point is that entertainment executives at a certain level will go to all sorts of lengths to get what they want, whether they involve spending profligate amounts of cash or taking a stapler to the head of a defenseless rodent.
“Scrooged” is hardly a perfect Christmas movie; a few scenes err on the side of the maudlin, and Kane’s hyperactive trilling helps rescue expository dialogue that would have fallen flat coming from almost any other actress. But it’s fast-paced and chuckle-inducing, and the way it predicts both the current media landscape and Murray’s sensitive side, which would later reveal itself more fully in “Lost in Translation” and “Broken Flowers,“ breathes life into an age-old, much-retold story.
Watch the trailer for “Scrooged”: