I can tell you a thousand things that Scrooged, director Richard Donner's 1988 updating of A Christmas Carol, gets wrong. It features Bobcat Goldthwait, for one example; it's silly and sketchy and has the attention span of a fruit fly, for another. Carol Kane's Ghost of Christmas Present is amusing for a millisecond and annoying for every moment thereafter. The script veers between brilliance and bathos, there's at least four too many sub-plots and the film is littered with those little Donner touches -- left-leaning posters as set dressing, acting in his own film -- that mark Donner as one of the more competent and terrifying hacks of our time.
But there's one thing that Scrooged gets right -- and indeed, it gets that one thing so right, that moment of perfection turns it from a diverting cable standby to compulsory holiday viewing. Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue's script gives a modern makeover to Dickens's classic story, and also mocks the Scrooge tale even as it re-enacts it. Frank Cross (Bill Murray), the youngest network president in the history of television, is harried and hateful as the holiday approaches; his network's spending $40 million on a live production of A Christmas Carol (which, for some reason, the film calls "Scrooge") that'll run Christmas Eve. The live shoot is going to be a mess: Buddy Hackett's playing Scrooge, and isn't great with his lines, at one point asking in dress rehearsal "Why am I surrounded by these sea urchins?" John Houseman's doing the narration; Mary Lou Retton is playing Tiny Tim. It's going to be horrible. And, most importantly to Frank, profitable. But Frank, like Scrooge, is visited by three ghosts, who show him his past, present and future. And even as Murray gives us all of the offbeat charm that he'd previously plied in films like Chaddyshack and Stripes and Ghostbusters, even as Scrooged gets bigger and broader and sillier, something interesting happens: Murray pulls it together, and he makes us believe it. Frank watches -- and we watch -- how he's shunned his family, thrown away the love of the kindly Claire (Karen Allen), been blind to the problems of his fellow men. And Murray, whose early scenes as Frank are loaded with bluff bravado and hateful high spirits, manages to find real moments in the special-effects overload and over-the-top wackiness to show us the possibility of redemption within Frank, to let us see how much Frank's visions of what's been, what is and what might be truly bother him. Delivered from his ghostly visions, Frank interrupts the network's live broadcast to deliver a thrilling, goofy and ultimately touching soliloquy where a man who previously only saw Christmas as an upward tick in ratings points now knows exactly why the season matters and is compelled to share his new insight with a live television audience.
It's that moment -- that finale -- that makes Scrooged truly worth watching. And not just because it's funny -- although it is -- but also because it's scary: Murray gives us what may be one of the best on-screen depictions of a man having a nervous breakdown. And yes, Murray can act -- he'd proven that four years earlier with The Razor's Edge -- but this is the first time, I think, where a large audience got to see exactly what Murray was capable of. Watching Scrooged's finale, you can see the first glimpses of the real performance skills he'd bring to later films like Lost in Translation and Rushmore. And every year, as the holidays threaten to turn into a chaotic swirl of lead-painted toys and consumerist frenzy, I find myself turning to Murray's final speech in Scrooged to put things right, and remind myself what the season is, in fact, really about: Faith, hope and charity, plus a few blowout parties. Or, as Frank puts it: "It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be."
And yes, before that finale, you have to sit through all of the clunky stuff named above -- plus Donald Trump jokes, Michael J. Pollard as a wacky street person, lamentable '80s haircuts and much, much more. But in this world, grace is where you find it, and the last 10 minutes of Scrooged contain the kind of grace (or something like it) we need a lot more of at the holidays and, indeed, throughout the year. Yes, there are a thousand things wrong with Scrooged; the one thing it gets right, though, makes that all worth it.