Being a staunch A Christmas Carol devotee, when I first saw that Ryan Reynolds and Will Farrell were teaming up to parody my favorite Charles Dickens book, I was intrigued. Can these two funny guys really make the Scrooge story funny?
Okay, follow me on this one: what if Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future were real and did this ‘ghost haunting’ thing all the time to redeem terrible people, and ran it like a business conglomerate with hundreds of employees? That’s the premise of this entertaining and lively musical featuring many showstopping Broadway-style songs and dance numbers. After redeeming a ‘Karen’, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Farrell) is given his next assignment (a horrible hotel manager) but opts for Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a heartless PR fixer that enjoys ruining other people’s lives. Even though he’s judged “unredeemable” by Marley (Patrick Page), Present decides to go for it anyway.
After Marley tanks his ghostly visit with Briggs, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) tries and fails in a rather awkward way, leaving Present to convince this fast-taking, snarky businessman that he has to change. He shows him scenes of him telling his shy young niece, Wren (Marlow Barkley), how to win a school election by despicable means. While working, a curious thing happens, Briggs’ loyal but ashamed assistant, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), can somehow see Present! This throws Present for a loop as he becomes smitten with Kimberly and her kindness.
Anyway, showing Briggs his past & present gets out of hand (the terrific song & dance number in Victorian England is straight out of Oliver!) and Briggs starts to cross-examine Present, much to his ire. Hey, who’s the one needing saving here? As Present fears he’s failing, along comes the Ghost of Christmas Future (Loren G. Woods but voiced by Tracy Morgan). Will Briggs finally find redemption? What about Present and his moral dilemma with Kimberly? And was that really Judi Dench in a walk-on cameo? Screenwriters John Morris and director Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2, both Daddy’s Home movies) have another winner on their hands, once you get past the first fifteen minutes of, “Oh, it’s gonna be a musical, huh? Okay.”
Really, take out all the songs and dancing and the story would have been just fine as the comedy holds up, especially with Farrell & Reynolds trading lines and ad-libs together. It’s filled with hilarity as well as heart-breaking empathy for Present and Briggs. I’ve seen my share of musicals I can say the songs by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) range from forgettable to moving to quite funny. My favorite was Good Afternoon, set in Victorian England. The movie, much like Scrooged (which the film mentions) also carries with it a nice, uplifting message at the end.
Farrell & Reynolds are a matched set, so funny on their own, but together they are a constant delight. Sunita Mani is also hilarious as Past and I really wanted more of her character. Patrick Page is an awesome Marley and Olivia Spencer has some wonderful moments. The surprise was Marlow Barkley as Wren (she’ll star in Netflix’s upcoming Slumberland). She has a haunting, old-soul look about her even though she’s just a kid. For a Christmas movie, this works on many levels and hits all the beats for all you A Christmas Carol lovers. It’s definitely worth adding to your Holiday viewing time!
**Streaming on AppleTV+ starting November 11th
There are many, many Christmas holiday movie offerings during the season, but this one is right up there with Nightmare Before Christmas and Die Hard. It’s a seasonal movie, based on Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol novel, but it’s really dark in places. . . and really funny as well!
Bill Murray completely inhabits his character as Frank Cross, a latter-day Scrooge who runs the IBC-TV network like a tyrant. His only ‘friend’ is his employee, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodward), who has an autistic little boy. Desperate for ratings this Christmas, Frank is in the middle of producing a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol, complete with the Solid Gold dancers, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and Buddy Hackett as Scrooge. After firing executive Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite) for disagreeing with him, Frank’s boss, Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), brings in hot-shot East Coast TV producer Brice Cummings (John Glover) to provide assistance.
All this stress sets off a chain of events where Frank’s long-dead boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) shows up to warn him about his wicked life and three upcoming ghosts. Just as Lew leaves, Frank’s old girlfriend Claire Phillips (Karen Allen) arrives to cheer him up, but it’s too late. The Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) shows up in a taxi and whisks Frank away to show him his dismal childhood, his IBC internship, and first meeting with Claire. The goofy, but dangerous Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) then appears and shows Frank (by severely injuring him) the error of ways.
Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future arrives (a huge Grim Reaper-like puppet) and scares Frank by showing him a bleak, dark future where Claire is an unfeeling rich woman and Frank is being cremated alive. Seeing the light, Frank and Lowdermilk break into the live TV feed of the show and tell the world to stop being so greedy and just give to each other. This entire end speech that Frank delivers was, btw, entirely unscripted and ad-libbed by Murray on the fly. He even breaks the fourth wall, talking to the audience and getting them to sing!
Even though the script is credited to SNL writers Mitch Glazer & Michael O’Donoghue, they reported that Murray frequently rewrote the script and very often went off-script with his famous ad-libbing. This kept the other actors on their toes as they had to expect the unexpected. This did not make director Richard Donner very happy, as he wasn’t accustomed to this kind of behavior in his actors. Donner said of Murray, “you don’t direct [Murray], you pull him back”. But it was Murray that sold this movie, making it (in time) a certified Holiday classic. And this is the only movie to feature Bill Murray and his two brothers; Brian Doyle-Murray plays his father and John Murray plays his brother!