A curmudgeonly TV producer gets haunted by three ghosts at Christmas.
Richard Donner, 1988
As Christmas approaches, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) seems determined to have as miserable a time of it as possible, and force others to do the same. He bullies his assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard), fires an employee (Bobcat Goldthwait), and refuses sends a towel to his devoted brother James (Bill’s real-life brother John Murray). Just before Christmas, Frank is visited by his old, dead boss, who has a mouse in his rotting skull and a warning: change his ways. He’s then visited by three ghosts: the ghost of Christmas past, a taxi-driving wiseguy; the ghost of Christmas present, a violently mad fairy; and the ghost of Christmas future, a pretty cool figure of death. Also visiting Frank is Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), a former flame who runs a homeless shelter. As he discovers more about how he affects the lives of those around him and ultimately himself, he starts to change his ways.
This take on the classic A Christmas Carol has a lot of things about it I should like. Bill Murray is a great comedian and actor, Karen Allen is gorgeous and amiable, and there’s a bunch of Goonies connections: the director Richard Donner, the production designer J Michael Riva; and a cameo from the late Mama Fratelli herself, Anne Ramsey. What it lacks is the humour of Ghostbusters, the fun of Indiana Jones, and the heart of The Goonies. Bill Murray seems to be acting sarcastically or ironically in this movie. He’s bitter and angry, and he starts his performance at eleven on the ham-o-meter; he has nowhere to go from there, so his cheesy, one-note performance quickly grows stale. Karen Allen is charming, but also limited to mooning over Murray’s ugly-haired jerk. Alfre Woodard is good in her fairly limited role. Bobcat Goldthwait, who spoke half a line before I knew who he was despite him initially being “against type”, devolves into, her, type fairly quickly. Only Carol Kane really gets to cut loose as the Glinda-parody fairy Ghost of Christmas Present, in a crazy lady stereotype kind of way, and got the only laughs out of me in the whole movie.
Which reminds me, there’s a lot of “humorous” abuse of women in this movie. Men, too, though that’s pretty much limited to Frank. Alfre Woodard gets accidentally hit in the face, Murray and Kane practically brawl, and there’s a side character whose entire purpose is to be hit by set pieces and generally hurt. On the one hand, it’s nice that this role isn’t given to a man, as it usually is; on the other, the volume of these moments is unsettling. The movie has a downright cruel sense of humour, and the payoff at the end feels incredibly insincere. You never get the sense that Cross genuinely changes; he says the lines, but they’re so sardonic that they ring profoundly untrue. There are some really cool ideas and set pieces in this movie, but the lazy script and central performances don’t live up to it. I’m going to watch Caddyshack soon; I really hope Murray’s a lot better in it.