Dickens' A Christmas Carol seems like ideal screen material, and it has been filmed over and over again, starting in 1901, and with versions in 1908, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1916, and so on. Yet as far back as box-office figures go it has never really been a hit—maybe because it's about a wasted life. (The spectacle of a miserly old man getting his comeuppance is not particularly enticing.) And maybe the story's familiarity has worked against it; whatever the latest version was, people could feel that it held few surprises. If SCROOGED, starring Bill Murray, breaks the jinx (as I assume it will*), the reasons aren't hard to find. Murray plays the character as roughly his own age (thirty-seven) , and the script , by Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue, who teamed up when they were on the writing staff of "Saturday Night Live, " plays off against the bewhiskered triteness of the tale; for example, we don't have to be reminded which of the original characters the new ones are based on. The best reason is that SCROOGED is a striking, outsize entertainment. Murray's Frank Cross, a yuppie egomaniac who's the youngest network president in history, is the meanest man in television. (That's the same as meanest man in the world.)

The picture is no more than a blown-up series of skits, but they come together, and what they're getting at is "TV has scrooged us, even the kids among us—especially the kids. It manipulates us and makes us cynical. It debauches us." Frank Cross is the living essence of TV. Dickens' Scrooge is a deviation from the norm, but Frank Cross, given his business environment, is only a crazily heightened version of the norm—and not just in his careerism but in his hip knowingness. He's casually contemptuous of the people who work at the network headquarters and of anybody he encounters outside. He's indifferent to anything but ratings—i.e., his own career. His "personal" pet project for the holidays is a live telecast of A Christmas Carol, with Buddy Hackett as a leprechaun Scrooge; it has Christmas-card ''authenticity" with Vegas razzle. But TV itself has taken us be yond the point where the three ghosts could appeal to a network president's intellect or emotions: Frank Cross has an answer to everything—he has been delivering heartfelt messages about the network's obligations for so long that responsibility and morality are just blah blah to him. It's as if some Zen therapy was needed to shake him up. So the three ghosts start beating up on him, and the movie turns into a comic revenge fantasy.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present—Carol Kane as a Sugar Plum Fairy out of the Nutcracker—abuses Frank (kick, slap, wham, pinch), she's a sadistic whirligig. She revels in punishing him. Carol Kane is a weirdly dainty comedienne, as she demonstrated as Mrs. Latka Gravas, on "Taxi," and opposite Billy Crystal in THE PRINCESS BRIDE; here she's a giggly Pre-Raphaelite angel-witch with gossamer wings and with glittering stars in her golden curls. Her madness is infectious. (I had a flash of how different WINGS OF DESIRE might have been if she'd played the speechifying winged aerialist—maybe with her Gravas accent.) The film trans ports Frank from one place to another by an ingenious de vice: pretty Sugar Plum bops him so hard he blacks out, and then he comes to at his brother's or his secretary's or wherever he can undergo a jolt of recognition.

The structure actually stays quite close to Dickens; it's the tones that are different. Frank is such a sleazeball son of a bitch that his self-centeredness keeps us laughing. And the movie itself is a Christmas cornucopia: it keeps popping surprises. Bobcat Goldthwait is the mild little executive whom Frank fires on Christmas Eve, never expecting him to return with a double-barrelled shotgun. John Forsythe, with his resonant moneyed voice, is the phantom of Frank's old boss, the network chief who died seven years earlier on the golf course and wears the moldy remnants of a rakish golf outfit . (An occasional golf ball emerges from his skull.) Robert Mitchum is the genteel, polite chairman of the board, who's even more of a maniacal burnout than Frank. David Johansen (also known as the lounge singer Buster Poindexter) is an actor of absolute confidence as the grinning cabbie whose identification card reads "Ghost of Christmas Past." And the peerlessly wicked John Glover, who may have the highest, sharpest cheekbones in the acting trade, is the new executive who's bucking to replace Frank; he sports a collegiate "Tennis, anyone?" haircut. Famous faces keep turning up Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, John Houseman, Mabel King, and there are glimpses of Susan Isaacs and Mary Lou Retton. When four street musicians play "We Three Kings of Orient Are," they're Miles Davis, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn, and Paul Shaffer. TV contains multitudes; even the people behind the box and in the box do time in front of it.

This satirical extravaganza has a visual advantage over most big comedies: it's set in a stylized, made-up universe with deep blues and black backgrounds—suave and velvety. Its vision of New York is the lacquered city in the sky that artists used to dream about. The Seagram Building, which serves as the exterior of the network headquarters, is a se ductive emblem of power—especially when the movie has you looking down the steep face of it. Vertigo is part of the skyscraper's seduction. So is its awesome coldness. And the modified Deco of the elevators and offices says "Come play here." The production designer, J. Michael Riva, and the cinematographer, Michael Chapman, must have shared a lust to prove that style can undercut the danger of sentimentality. The heartlessness of the film's beauty is exciting: you're looking at life in an executive's dark mirror.

Every now and then an image takes over. Michael J. Pollard plays a homeless man whom Frank refuses to help; Frank sees him next sitting up in an alley with icicles hanging from him, his eyes still shining with love of life. Frank meets the Ghost of Christmas Future in an elevator, pulls away the clothes covering the Ghost's chest, and sees what's inside: a collection of lost souls screaming and gnashing their teeth. (It's like a wild, stray thought.) Somehow, Frank's hallucinations manage to be satiric and funny—they're never just macabre. Though the director, Richard Donner, can't be said to have a great comic touch, he knows how to scale the scenes, and he does hit the gags on the button. The editors take it from there and keep the movie leaping. Even the dead spots—when, for instance, Karen Allen, as Frank's onetime girlfriend, grins her Woodstock free-spirit grin and the camera is transfixed—move fast.

SCROOGED uses the Dickens framework for an allegory of a yuppie rediscovering the sixties spirit (whereas TV, as a selling medium, has been celebrating the yuppie revolt against the sixties spirit). As the picture goes on, and Frank the powermonger begins to crack, his slicked-down hair gets freer, messier, and curlier; he begins to suggest a long-haired kid of the sixties. That's easy. What isn't easy is his attempt to express his new feelings. When Frank interrupts his telecast and speaks, you hear Murray pleading with the movie audience, asking people to accept the unhip message of love, so that "the miracle of Christmas can happen every day." He's saying, "This isn't so offensive, is it? I know I seem like an ass up here , but it really would help if people treated each other with more consideration—you know it as well as I do." I felt that Murray believed every word—that this was what the movie was leading up to. It goes against the grain of the Murray you've come to know, but you're forced to recognize that he's trying to find an equilibrium between hip and unhip. He's trying to take the kinks out of his soul or, at least, out of Bill Murray the hipster character's soul.

Since the film's sixties spirit merges with moral uplift, you may feel your back stiffening. Murray is asking you to believe in the maudlin crap that TV hands you—it's the old Sunday-school/Capraesque number. (Very likely the movie makers have no other idea of what the alternative to TV's zapping the soul out of you could be.) But when you hear the sentiments you can also hear the intentions behind them—Murray is trying to push past the "Saturday Night Live" put-ons. The whole movie breathes his desire to make direct contact. He's saying hipness isn't all, and the proof is in the amazing performance he gives. It's a triumphant parody of yuppie callousness. And it's much more: Murray's freewheeling, screwy generosity is what makes this huge contraption of a movie work.

*It didn't.

[December 12, 1988]