The Austin Chronicle

Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul

When movies go looking for Christmas redemption

By Josh Rosenblatt, December 16, 2011, Screens

Some people like to talk about the career of Bill Murray as being composed of two distinct eras: pre-Rushmore and post-Rushmore. Before his award-winning turn in Rushmore, they say, Murray was just a talented clown whose smarmy charm and boundless self-interest breathed life into countless classic but emotionally insignificant comedies like Stripes and Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. Then came 1998's Rushmore and everything, as they say, changed. Writer/director Wes Anderson recognized the sadness and tragedy behind Murray's eyes, could see all the despair and melancholy bubbling just beneath the surface of all that antic, anti-authoritarian sarcasm, and he coaxed it out of him. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Murray had his come-to-Jesus moment playing disaffected tycoon Herman Blume; he was reborn from clown to artist in a single film and became an arthouse hero. His punishment was playing depressives for the next 10 years.

In fact, Murray the tragic figure, the lost soul, had been brimming for a decade by the time Rushmore hit theatres and made him the darling of the independent movie world. It was actually Scrooged, director Richard Donner's 1988 update of the classic Dickens story, that gave general audiences their first glimpse into the lonely, melancholic soul of Bill Murray – the one starving for meaning but encased in a protective barrier of irony.

Scrooged, which is playing as part of a holiday double feature with Love Actually at the Paramount Theatre this Sunday and Monday, is the oldest Hollywood cliché there is: the Christmas Eve redemption picture. But what makes it such an odd and memorable film is that its hero's redemption actually seems to transcend the film itself and extend to the actor playing him. Who can say what in a Murray movie is scripted and what's improvised (Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue wrote the screenplay), but when Murray's narcissistic TV executive Frank Cross looks into the camera in the movie's climactic scene and starts talking about the miracle of Christmas, about the redemptive power of altruism and love and his desire to experience that power, you can't help but feel like Murray is talking about himself, that he's confessing to the millions he'd spent the last decade entertaining that there is something more to him than just laughs and entertainment, that he longs for something. "If you give, then the miracle can happen to you," he says. "I believe in it now. I believe it's gonna happen to me now. I'm ready for it." It's a remarkably transparent and generous moment for an actor who built his reputation on obfuscation and self-absorption. And it gives an otherwise predictable, light comedy about the saving power of Christmas an air of real redemption.

Of course the other movie on the Paramount double bill is the world's heavyweight champion – the Lawrence of Arabia – of Christmas redemption movies. Perhaps the world's first true romantic comedy epic, writer/director Richard Curtis' Love Actually conjures up neat and tidy love-filled Christmas Eve endings for no fewer than 10 lonely, sweater-clad Londoners. It's a remarkable feat when you think about it: creating scenarios of romantic blundering and lighthearted loneliness for what seems like every actor in England (including Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman, and Emma Thompson) and tying up all their lives into one neat little package complete with ribbons, bows, and a twig of holly. Without even a hint of Murray-esque cynicism or even self-awareness, Love Actually elevates schmaltz to previously unimagined heights.

The difference between Love Actually and Scrooged is the difference between perfection and striving. Love Actually hits all its marks and does all its jobs. It throws countless Christmas rom-com softballs in the air and knocks each one effortlessly out of the park. The movie's characters live in a fantasy London of upper-middle class hipness, a land of Norah Jones songs and perfect rehabbed downtown lofts; for these people, love, like a perfect-fitting pair of jeans, is an inevitability, a birthright, a lifestyle choice. It's just a matter of getting through a spot of emotional difficulty or two before your prince or princess arrives. There's joy and delight and there's charm, but none of it feels earned. The 1980s New York of Scrooged, on the other hand, is a land of desolation, depravity, callousness, indifference, and economic despair; a place where love – like everything else – has to be fought for. There's no guarantee Frank is going to receive that feeling he didn't know he'd been longing for, just as there was no guarantee that Murray was going to show up on the set with a lust for that same feeling in his heart. Love and salvation are matters of luck and hope, as random and scattershot as everything else in life. And true redemption can only come at the end of a long, hard slog.

Scrooged and Love Actually screen Dec. 18-19 at the Paramount Theatre. See Film Listings for showtimes.

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