It takes a special kind of actor to pull off what Bill Murray is doing in A Very Murray Christmas. The Netflix special, directed by Murray’s Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola, requires a precise level of genuine disingenuousness (or is it disingenuous genuineness?) that is a rare thing for any performer to wield in a way that isn’t off-putting, let alone makes him one of the most well-liked actors of his or any other generation. In the special, Murray and Coppola pay slightly mocking tribute to the television variety show. They take specific aim at those delivering a little hokey holiday cheer by setting up a scenario in which a famous person hangs out with all his famous friends, sings some classic Christmas tunes, and maybe tells a few charming stories along the way.
These specials are something of a low-stakes high-wire act. They are an attraction wherein the schmaltz and insincere sincerity of the host and his guests is balanced just so, tempered by musical performances that are typically engaging enough it’s easy to look past the corniness of it all. In this case, though, A Very Murray Christmas takes the degree of difficulty a step further. The special obliges its star to be entirely in the moment, aware he is putting on a performance while still being himself, and in complete control of the joke at all times. That means maintaining a straight face while simultaneously winking at the audience without ever actually winking at the audience. Thankfully, such comedic hocus-pocus is something Murray has been perfecting for the entirety of his career.
The premise is as shockingly simple as it is reminiscent of other specials. Murray, hanging out at the Carlyle Hotel with his ubiquitous musical accompaniment Paul Shaffer, is preparing for a live televised Christmas special that, due to a horrible snowstorm making travel in NYC almost impossible, will have to go on without the likes of George Clooney, Pope Francis, and Iggy Azalea. After some prodding by the show’s producers – played by Amy Poheler and Julie White – and a run-in with Michael Cera, as a desperate would-be manager, Murray is finally coaxed in front of the camera all by his lonesome. After an incredibly coincidental run-in with Chris Rock results in a hilarious and awkward duet, a power failure means the producers can call it a day, while Rock just cuts and runs.
In the aftermath of the show’s cancellation, Murray finds himself gathering hotel guests and employees to enjoy some drinks and sing a few tunes. As luck would have it, the hotel’s cooking staff happens to be comprised of the band Phoenix, while Jenny Lewis plays a cocktail waitress who is quick with a song when a bit of calculated spontaneity calls for an impromptu duet of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside.’ Eventually, the revelry is joined by the likes of Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman as a couple whose wedding was postponed due to the weather, and the always-great Maya Rudolph (no stranger to variety shows herself) who belts out a terrific rendition of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’. Everyone who is not Bill Murray has a slightly easier task, as they are generally asked to put-on the guise of an actual character – though that’s stretching the concept of character a little. Jones, Schwartzman, and Rudolph are who they are, while also being part of the farce that is A Very Murray Christmas.
The special runs for approximately 56 minutes, jumping through three distinct sections somewhat abruptly. The second part is probably the bumpiest, as Murray and his cohorts vacillate from song to seemingly improvised storytelling in a way that only vaguely hints at a sense of structure. Various scenes play out like half-written sketches where it’s not entirely certain what the joke is or where they’re headed – aside from the bar. The earlier bits play better as they aim for more straight comedy. Cera, Rock, and Poehler make the most of their time onscreen before the tone shifts to a faux earnestness that resembles the opening segment, wherein Murray, decked out in felt reindeer antlers, dolefully sings a holiday tune with Shaffer on piano.
The thing about A Very Murray Christmas is that it so clearly is working at becoming two specific things: a somewhat maudlin take on loneliness at Christmas – underlined by Phoenix’s performance of ‘Alone on Christmas Day’ – and a half-mocking tribute to variety specials. The two parts both manage to have their own distinct flavor, but struggle to come together as a cohesive whole. The closest the hour gets to this is the lively third act, which finds Murray waking on a glitzy “soundstage in Queens” after imbibing one too many holiday shots.
The dynamic nature of the kitschy dream sequence, with its all-white stage, Christmas lights, costumed dancers, and full band, not only injects some much-needed energy into the events, but it also suggests the director’s use of low-key static shots in the earlier sequences was to deliberately heighten the sensationalistic nature of the third act. Here Murray takes on perhaps the most familiar aspect of the persona that is Bill Murray, and is joined by the likes of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, balancing glitz with kitsch rather nicely. While Cyrus delivers a commendable solo, it’s Clooney’s goofball part in Murray’s Elvis-y performance that elevates the last bit and drives home its dreamlike nature.
A Very Murray Christmas feels a little like taking Scrooged and Lost in Translation, two very different Murray performances, and squishing them together to see what they make. The result is undeniably offbeat and perhaps most appealing because of its off-center tastes. Most of the time it’s Murray’s self-awareness that keeps the special going, the effortlessness with which he interacts with his guests sands the edges on even the roughest segments. As such, this unconventional holiday special feels, in the end, most like a reflection of its eponymous star: jokingly sincere and sometimes aloof, but charming nonetheless.
A Very Murray Christmas is currently available on Netflix.
Photos: Ali Goldstein/Netflix