“Scrooged” is one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time. It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger. This entire production seems to be in dire need of visits from the ghosts of Christmas.

-- Roger Ebert, 1988.

Our own Sarah Gorr is in good company in excoriating Richard Donner’s weird, cynical take on A Christmas Carol. Roger Ebert hated it enough to include it in his collection of reviews I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie in 2000. Ebert’s review reminds us that nobody liked Scrooged all that much when it came out, and that if it hadn’t had the transgenerational icon Bill Murray in the principal role and a constant presence on 90s cable television, it probably would have been forgotten by now. 

I can’t mount a total defense of this movie: it is cynical; its perfunctory nods to the Christmas spirit are particularly shallow; it is emblematic of the very kind of media-and-coke-saturated ‘80s opportunistic capitalism it’s trying to satirize; it is deeply sexist. But, in my family, it’s also tradition. 

It’s hard to tell how it came to be that my sisters, my father and I used to watch Scrooged every year. It certainly wasn’t Dad’s default style of Christmas movie; he was a much more sentimental guy, otherwise partial to movies like Elf [not cringeworthy] and The Christmas Box [very cringeworthy]. Regardless of where the tradition comes from, I was in deep enough that I had to read perspectives like Sarah’s to lift my blinders and see the films deep, deep flaws. 

But even if I can’t mount a true defense of this movie, I think I can offer an appropriately cynical take on its appeal. In his review, Ebert is right that the resolution of the film, a rushed rehash of the concluding beats of A Christmas Carol, hits all the wrong notes. While Scrooge always seems a bit crazed in that final scene, Murray’s Frank Cross seems downright, dangerously psychotic, as deranged as when he started the film. Shouting to the camera about the Christmas spirit that has been little in evidence in the rest of the film, Cross now seems more eager to be liked, but just as indifferent to the reality of the people around him.

Scrooged takes place in an ugly, irredeemable world, one where, even if Cross can mimic the lessons of “peace on earth and good will toward men,” we have little faith he’ll be able to follow through—or, given his treatment of the film’s women, that the misgendering of the latter phrase has particular significance. If the critique of the movie is that cable television and media conglomerates have turned A Christmas Carol into a set of flat clichés to be endlessly repeated, it commits the exact same sin. 

But for all the hypocrisy of this movie, it has the advantage over other Christmas movies in that it shows us, even if unintentionally, a glimpse of the real world. The conclusion of most Christmas films take place in the realm of the ideal: it would be nice if millionaires could be more generous with their money; it would be great if men could appreciate the people in their lives; it would be wonderful if forgiveness could reign, if only for a day. Meanwhile, while we enjoy our morals, in the world outside, Christmas is a field day for corporate executives and shareholders, who profit off of the drive they create in us to consume, and to consume beyond our means. 

It isn’t just Christmas movies, though: virtually all Hollywood films, especially the ones that take place in the contemporary, real world, ask us to imagine a world that doesn’t actually exist, where millionaires and beautiful celebrities are just like you and me and are redeemable as individuals via their charm and likability, irrespective of questions of class. But at the end of Scrooged, you can’t help but suspect that the callous millionaire has gotten away with his crimes merely by adopting a friendlier mask. If that’s not a reflection of the real world, I don’t know what is. 

This uneven, cynical, morally ugly movie can be a breath of fresh air among all the films that are telling me that everything is just fine. It may succeed because it fails. The film’s ugliness is a product of the world it sprung from, the world it accidentally lets slip into it—that, unlike good Christmas movies, it fails to paste over with nice-seeming sentiment. Plus, I do think parts of it are pretty funny.