A Very Murray Christmas Review: Melancholic, but Magical Nonetheless

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Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola’s Christmas special doesn’t bring the yuletide cheer you might expect, but its glowing earnestness and winking self-awareness provide more than enough of the warm holiday fuzzies.

Netflix has had quite the 2015. In their steps to take over the world become a major force in Hollywood, the streaming service-turned-studio has put out a slew of award-winning original shows, several exclusive standup specials, and a tour-de-force original movie (hi, Beasts of No Nation). Next up, the company is trying their hand at a throwback holiday special. In true Netflix fashion, they’ve pulled out all the stops.

Yes, A Very Murray Christmas features all the trappings of a typical holiday variety show. Musical numbers. An excess of famous faces. A loose plot thread that you don’t really have to pay attention to. The hour-long special is easily reminiscent of a classic Bing Crosby program. Yet, there’s something underneath the surface that makes this outing very original.

Coppola directs the musical numbers with aplomb—she did get her start in music videos, after all—incorporating a roster of delightful performers including Jenny Lewis, the band Phoenix, and Miley Cyrus into the fun (at one point, the ladder belts out a cover of Silent Night that’s undeniably impressive).

Equally as enjoyable are the actors that get brought into the holiday cheer. Several—Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, Julie White—pop up for brief appearances, while others—George Clooney, Maya Rudolph, Chris Rock, and a surprisingly bluesy Rashida Jones—join in on the singing themselves. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen the special’s trailer, or even the poster that includes the full cast list. Still, it’s never not fun to see a bunch of talented people hamming it up together and clearly having fun.

What really is a surprise, however, is the special’s sense of self-awareness when it comes to Christmas variety shows and, more importantly, the public perception of Bill Murray. The iconic actor has long been known as an everyman, preferring to crash bachelor parties and karaoke nights instead of hobnobbing it up in Hollywood. A Very Murray Christmas presents a version of him that both plays into the mythic idea of Bill Murray while simultaneously poking fun at it.

The story, not that it matters much, revolves around Murray hosting a live TV variety special at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. The only problem is that the weather outside has made it impossible for any of his celebrity guests to show up. The Murray we see here is a little more vain than we’re used to. He’s upset that the guests he’s invited—including Sir Paul McCartney and Pope Francis—haven’t shown up to his shindig, and feels it’s too pathetic to put on a show anyway.

Eventually, though, the lovable cad we’re more accustomed to shines through. Murray decides that the show must go on, even if its just for the remaining members of the hotel staff. It’s his job to bring the cheer, after all. One scene features the perfect winking nod to his public perception when he tells Jones, playing a sad bride whose wedding was cancelled, “You look like you would like to have your photograph taken with me.”

The script, by Murray, Coppola, and Mitch Glazer, features several self-aware smirks such as this. The entire affair tries to eschew the inherent campiness of these special for something for honest. Yet, in its attempt to find the true spirit of Christmas, it can’t seem to shy away from sentimentality every now and then.

There’s also an intriguing sense of melancholy that runs as an undercurrent throughout. If there’s one of Murray’s characters that he most resembles here, it’s that of his most famous Coppola collaboration in Lost in Translation. He’s the guy who loves to make everyone happy, but is he happy himself? A scene in the beginning sees him angrily hang up on a mysterious caller who turns out to be his sister. The final scene is one that’s mean to be uplifting, but is tinged with a bit of loneliness. This is, in many cases, the type of feeling that the holiday season brings.

A Very Murray Christmas is more concerned with its musical extravaganza than the inner workings of the mind of its star. One can’t expect too much introspection in an hour-long variety show, yet these small peaks we get are interesting. Some of the musical numbers do run a little long, but the whole thing is so winsome that its hard to truly be a Grinch about it. Netflix’s other shows have defied the categories of comedy, drama, and animation. Now they’re giving us their own spin on the holidays. It’s pretty original. And it’s very, very Murray. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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