Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Scrooged (1988)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day ten.

Has a movie star had a more schizophrenic career than Bill Murray? At first glance, there seems to be a massive disconnect between his comedic roles and his sudden jump into melancholy, dramatic turns in his collaborations with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. Some of this sudden change can be attributed to the fact that Murray chose to age gracefully into roles that didn’t require him to play the clown. Another factor is that Murray, reportedly, has no interest in playing Hollywood games, only taking on projects that interest him with people he likes and trusts. Both of these reasons are admirable, but after watching him in nothing but his late-career dramatic turns for the past few years, it’s rather jarring to see his unhinged comedic persona on full display in Scrooged.

For much of the film’s running time, Murray is in full smirking, sarcastic mode. Part of this is that he is playing a character who has buried his humanity and soul beneath layers of cynicism, ambition, greed, and ego. But just as much of Murray’s old persona of keeping a remove between himself and the character is present. Most of Murray’s work in the ’80s traded on his knowing grin and seemingly improvised asides, as though he knew he was funnier than whatever the script demanded he say. The appeal of Murray was that he let the audience in on the joke that movies were pure fantasy at best, useless bullshit at worst.

But Scrooged found Murray taking his first tentative steps toward actually inhabiting a character. There is honest sweetness in his performance as the younger Frank Cross in the Christmas Past sequences in the film. Murray and director Richard Donner understood the importance of tracking Cross’ descent from a decent workaholic young man into a power-hungry jerk of a middle-aged executive. It really is the first time I can recall seeing Murray depend on something beyond his innate likeability to draw sympathy to his character.

These scenes are quickly undercut by Murray’s usual persona, but they set the stage for the film’s climax as Cross sets about making things right with his former girlfriend (Karen Allen), his brother (Murray’s real-life brother, John), his secretary (Alfre Woodard), an underling (Bobcat Goldthwait) he fired days before Christmas, and the viewers to whom he has been broadcasting junk on his network.

In a rambling monologue that is pure Murray, he wanders a television set, calling for people to love each other, to do something good for their fellow man. The monologue feels improvised, giving it more power than a canned speech written to tug on heartstrings. But what is most impressive about the sequence is watching Murray completely drop his comedic persona. He is still very funny, but there is desperation on his face, an honesty that speaks to the experiences that his character has endured. This is a man who realizes how close he came to losing everything and is exhilarated by his second chance. This feels like the moment that Murray understood he had dramatic potential and a future beyond his comedic persona. It’s an unexpectedly powerful moment in a largely silly movie.

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