If you're a fan of Bill Murray's brand of befuddled enthusiasm, the new Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas will delight you to no end. If you're at all ambivalent ... well, you'll probably be pretty bored.
The program is an homage to classic Christmas specials — but one that's disillusioned by the idea of paying tribute to the holiday with the same old slate of carols and platitudes. Murray enlists a talented group to help him alternatively take down the holiday industrial complex and revel in the warmer, cheesier moments that come with the season.
If this sounds like the special is at odds with itself, that's because it is. But A Very Murray Christmas isn't an unpleasant ride. It's just scattered, casting about for meaning in anecdote after anecdote and guest star after guest star, until it eventually meanders to a close. It is perfectly nice — and even very pretty to look at, thanks to Sofia Coppola's direction — but that's about it.
Bill Murray is a skilled comedian, but a weird choice to head up a holiday special
While A Very Murray Christmas clocks in at just under an hour, the first 20 minutes are just Murray despairing that his live Christmas Eve special is going to be a disaster. All of New York City is snowed in, and none of his audience nor any of his special guests can make it to the Carlyle Hotel.
As his good cop/bad cop producers (the always-winning Amy Poehler and Julie White) try to convince him otherwise, Murray mopes about, whining, drinking, then whining some more. The script, credited to Murray, Coppola, and Mitch Glazer, is full of spirit but has a tendency to wander when it doesn't know what else to do.
Things don't really get cooking until Chris Rock accidentally shows up at the hotel, and a desperate Murray grabs him and forces him onstage for an awkward duet of "Little Drummer Boy." They wear matching green turtlenecks with festive holly pinned over their hearts, but as Murray croons on, Rock's eyes frantically scan the room for escape routes. Rock is hilarious in his cameo, mostly thanks to his insistent confusion at how chummy Murray's being when the two don't actually know each other at all.
Eventually the power goes out, and the special becomes a revolving door of comedians and musicians. It's better off for it. But even so, Murray never quite makes a case for why it's A Very Murray Christmas as opposed to, say, A Very Jenny Lewis Christmas, or A Very Maya Rudolph Christmas. Murray is unmoored in this special, bouncing from friend to more interesting friend. It's also never clear whether the younger women that spark his interest in the special (see: Lewis, Rashida Jones, Miley Cyrus, assorted waitresses) do so because he's feeling fond and paternal or frisky and inappropriate.
At the very least, though, Murray has a lovely singing voice.
Seriously, why aren't Jenny Lewis and Maya Rudolph running this show?
One problem with gathering such a talented group of performers is that they can outshine you, and that's what happens to Murray in A Very Murray Christmas — often.
After Rock makes his exit, singer Jenny Lewis swoops in to pick up the slack with a rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that is so lovely it almost makes you forget how many damn times you've heard that song. Murray and Lewis are good friends in real life, and their chemistry together is warm and natural in a way that makes you feel like you're watching a long-awaited reunion between the two. Lewis, whose former life was as a Troop Beverly Hills–era child actor, is at ease in front of the camera, and her voice brings strength to Christmas carols that could otherwise turn saccharine.
When Murray decides that everyone at the Carlyle is going to enjoy Christmas Eve, dammit, it leads to several noteworthy musical interludes. Jason Schwartzman plays drums for the French band Phoenix on a lost Beach Boys carol, and then he and Rashida Jones kick off a group sing-along of Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light."
When the clock strikes midnight, all the assorted hotel guests and workers join together for a rousing rendition of the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." It's hard not to smile at their enthusiasm and obvious affection for each other. When Murray finally passes out at the end of the night, he enters a glossy fever dream starring Cyrus, George Clooney, and a bevy of Rockettes-adjacent dancers for a slicker round of Christmas cheer. Cyrus's "Silent Night" is your monthly reminder that this frenetic pop weirdo does, in fact, come equipped with a powerhouse voice.
Still: No one can stop a show quite like Maya Rudolph.
She struts in, a luxurious fur wrapped around her shoulders, pours a martini down Schwartzman's throat, and promptly launches into a non-sequitur performance of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." Rudolph's comedy is of the "bigger is better" variety, which isn't meant as an insult. For her, going bigger just makes sense. Rudolph is a huge presence, with a straightforward confidence that sells every syllable she utters, whether heartfelt or completely nonsensical.
She also has a hell of a voice, and doesn't hesitate to show it off when tackling such a challenging standard, a prospect that's cowed many a capable singer. Rudolph also plays a haughty, rich character, an obvious exception in the otherwise earnest A Very Murray Christmas — and frankly, the special could use a little more of her absurdism.
The best arguments for A Very Murray Christmas's existence are its lush visuals
Under Coppola's direction, Murray's misadventures in the Carlyle are gorgeous to watch. The hotel bar, stark and uncomfortable at the beginning of the frozen night, becomes as welcoming as a dear friend's living room as everyone loosens up and embraces the spirit of holiday togetherness. Coppola's camera tracks the night's turbulent activity down carpeted hallways, through the weary kitchen, and finally into the depths of Murray's hopeful mind when it cooks up the gleaming theatrics of the Clooney-Cyrus collaboration.
All the while, Murray spins from person to person, song to song, with the hangdog look of a man who wants to have a merry Christmas, but is afraid he's forgotten how. "I'm a ghost," he tells Schwartzman's despondent fiancé character halfway through the night. "I’ve got to keep haunting and haunting and haunting."
And though he does eventually wake up from his elaborate drunken fantasy, it's just as easy to imagine A Very Murray Christmas ending with Murray wandering the halls of the Carlyle, wondering why no one will just sit down, have a drink, and sing about some goddamn Christmas cheer already.
A Very Murray Christmas is available to stream on Netflix.