Who is the target audience of A Very Murray Christmas (2015)? Those who have a warmth for the holidays as remembered by the olden days of television, and those who like Bill Murray.
The Netflix-produced Christmas special grabs the yesteryear concept of a television Christmas special akin to Judy Garland or Dean Martin and replaces the star with Bill Murray, the beloved icon of disillusionment. At the Hotel Carlyle to film a holiday special, he’s joined only be Paul Schaffer, Amy Poehler and Julie White. Murray spends the bulk of the special’s first act talking about how it will be a disaster. As the premise of many past specials goes, New York has been shut down by snow and those scheduled to appear on his show (including seatmates Pope Francis and Iggy Azalea) can’t get to the hotel. As time pushes forward, special guests happen to drop into Murray’s lap, either as themselves or thinly-structured characters written to get the actors on screen. None of this is bad -- it’s the setup you’d have expected from Bing Crosby decades ago, when a boy-aged Murray was watching on his television at home.
Reuniting with Sofia Coppola, who directed Murray’s Lost in Translation 12 years ago in 2003, the show is simultaneously a deadpan riff on bygone Christmas specials and a special in its own right, which determinedly maintains its quirky point of view throughout. It has the style and structure of those old holiday events, but the gleaming white teeth and baritone smoothness of Bing Crosby are far from present. A Very Murray Christmas’ comedy is subtle; the punchline is often Murray himself. Other times it’s his gentle misuse of holiday lyrics to advertise their goofiness, or, in its more direct comedic attempts, the awkwardness of George Clooney spookily popping out from behind Christmas trees during “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” like a perverted uncle you wish stayed home for the holidays.
The simplicity of the special’s comedy doesn’t appeal to everyone. A number of critics deemed the show boring despite its capable cast. But when Murray and Chris Rock (who sings terribly) perform a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the fact Rock can’t sing isn’t the punchline. The joke is the duo’s sweet green turtlenecks with holly pinned to their chests, and the manner in which Rock carries himself. If Dean Martin had wore this same getup it would have been charming. It’s different with Murray. He’s too much alien and not enough monkey to fit in here, yet he goes for it with conviction.
The New York Times writes, “Every Christmas special has an overarching tone — saccharine, or wistful, or satirical — and A Very Murray Christmas corners the market on gloomy. It opens with Mr. Murray (wearing an antler headband) singing “Christmas Blues” and ends with Maya Rudolph drinking alone. It tries hard — too hard, really — to turn melancholy into a thing, and it winds up being a holiday special for the disillusioned and dejected, full of inside jokes but in the end kind of empty.”
But really, that’s the point. When something opens with Bill Murray wearing felt reindeer antlers and singing “Christmas Blues,” it sets a tone. The show is familiar, recalls the memories of television that no longer exists on television, and twists it through Murray’s infallible Murray-ness. After all, this is a Christmas special that tosses in expletives and which climaxes through the wishful fantasy of Murray’s alcohol-induced stupor. From the start of the special to the end, Bill Murray has to warm up to the idea of spending Christmas in a hotel with Bill Murray. We do the same, though only for an hour, along with Rashida Jones, Jenny Lewis, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph (what a voice!), Miley Cyrus, Michael Cera, and all the above-mentioned stars. Meanwhile, Coppola’s direction keeps everything tight and beautiful.
The special is aware of everything it is doing. “Gosh it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Murray asks George Clooney about the Christmas-covered set. “Yeah... for a soundstage in Queens,” Clooney retorts. The Wall Street Journal called the show “a delivery system for sarcasm, irreverence and a burlesque of every holiday-programming tradition this nation has cherished since Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol hit the airwaves in 1962,” and it doesn’t say that with condescension.
A Very Murray Christmas captures Murray’s sardonic distance from the traditional Hollywood bill. The guy usually seems like he cares about nothing, floating about the world with a bitter aloofness akin to no other A-lister. As it turns out, this special reveals a well of sentiment beneath the surface of the man who scorned Christmas in Scrooged (1988) decades ago. You can sense his respect for holiday traditions through the mockery, culminating in a dry lark of a Christmas special.