Had enough of Michael Bublé crooning his way through yet another Christmas special? Seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer so many times that you’re wondering when, if ever, the damn lightbulb on that nose is going to burn out? Ready to say “good grief” already to A Charlie Brown Christmas?
Maybe, then, A Very Murray Christmas is for you.
Of course, the appeal of Bill Murray is the cheeky way he manages to appear crankily exasperated with such jovial or, as the kids would say, “basic” things as Christmas spirit and Yuletide frolicking—this is the guy from Scrooged, after all—but winkingly telegraphs that any bah humbugs uttered are all in jest.
The old sap is not-so-secretly loving all of this.
He’s just like us, the jaded horde ready to kick down the CVS Christmas display when it’s erected in mid-October and set fire to our ears when Christmas music takes over the airwaves mere hours after Halloween… but then can be found skipping around our apartments while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” plays on loop for all of December.
Thus is the crux of Netflix’s first Christmas special: a cool kid’s embrace of the holidays.
A Very Murray Christmas, which launches Friday, teams Murray with the creatives who bring out his curmudgeon-delightful best. Mitch Glazer, who penned the screenplay for Scrooged back in 1988, co-wrote the special along with Murray and Sofia Coppola, who also directs and, as she did with Lost in Translation, performs miracles repurposing Murray’s well-worn public personality for surprising creative gain.
Consider A Very Murray Christmas the quirky alternative to the traditional special.
It’s like your friend who says he really loves Christmas, but decides not to go home to his parents’ big holiday extravaganza every year because he and his friends have more fun doing their “own thing.” Oh, this is so very Bill Murray, Mitch Glazer, and Sofia Coppola’s “own thing.”
And as the rest of us drown in tinsel, Target Christmas shopping trips, and maniacal efforts to keep the holidays perfectly traditional, the special makes that “own thing” look particularly appealing. Those classic song-and-dance Christmas specials, those expensive and commercial traditions, are staid for a reason.
But enlisting the help of Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, and a dizzying array of cooler-than-you celebrity friends (why hello there, Miley Cyrus and George Clooney), A Very Murray Christmas proves the appeal of the breezier, if a bit self-congratulatory, holiday celebration.
I mean, with friends like these…
It’s hard to shake memories of Nick, Murray’s jaded lounge singer from Saturday Night Live, as Murray dons tuxedo and tails to prep for what we learn is a show-within-a-show Christmas Eve holiday special. And the premise is slight, but that’s all we really have the patience for this time of year, what with gifts to buy and trees to decorate, parties to attend and lists to check twice.
Murray is set to perform a cabaret-style concert at the Carlyle Hotel—glamorous hotels is where Coppola and Murray do their best work, after all—when a blizzard shuts down New York City, eventually causing a blackout and a Christmas special travesty.
So there we meet Bill Murray, sporting a headband with reindeer antlers and rolling his eyes.
Fed-up Bill Murray wearing reindeer antlers at Christmas is all of us.
Lamenting it all, he and Paul Shaffer, late of the The Late Show With David Letterman, sing the “Christmas Blues.” (Never to shy away from clichés, Christmas specials are always the first to remind us that “the most wonderful time of the year” is also the most potent annual harbinger from gloom and wistful unhappiness.)
There’s an endearing earnestness to Murray’s loathsome, though clear-voiced, singing, like he’s being dragged to the stage against his will but secretly wanted to be up there performing the whole time. He’s less the classic lounge singer than he is the talented drunk uncle at a party, his bowtie undone and reindeer headband askew, hitting most of the notes by the end.
As Murray mopes through the Carlyle, various famous friends pop up, some playing themselves—a game, tone-deaf Chris Rock; the aforementioned Shaffer—most filling roles as the rag-tag group of hotel dwellers who in various deus ex machina ways manage to reluctantly end up in song with Murray, scraping together a makeshift Christmas special in its own right.
There’s Amy Poehler and Julie White, playing the planned special’s Hollywood-talking producers, bullshitting Murray in front of the camera with meaningless tripe we all fall susceptible to: “Think of the troops. Right? And the kids? In hospitals? And pets outside?”
There’s Michael Cera playing a jaded showbiz manager who pours coal all over any enthusiasm Murray may have mustered to perform his gig: “This is your idea of a Christmas special? This is a national disgrace.”
The special comes alive as Murray stumbles through the Carlyle’s famed Bemelmans Bar and falls into song with wry-laced sincerity. Rashida Jones is there in a wedding dress. “You look like you’d like to have your photograph taken with me,” he tells her. “I notice that really seems to cheer people up when they do that. They really get big smiles.”
Her groom, played by Jason Schwartzman, eventually finds her. Jenny Lewis is playing a waitress. Maya Rudolph is a wise, fabulous drunk at the bar.
At one point, they all sing a version of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” that is so warm, lovely, and inviting that it does that thing that Christmas always tends to do: hit you with a sharp jolt of sentimentality when you least expect it, turning you from the Grinch to Cindy Lou Who in an instant.
Your heart will grow three sizes after watching them gathered around a piano, taking shots and singing. Guaranteed.
There are classics both new and old that are sung for no reason, not that there ever needs to be in one of these things.
Maya Rudolph, wrapped in a fabulous fur shawl, slays a version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” that is Netflix’s gift to all of us, foregoing the potential for any jokes or bits that Rudolph would obviously nail to let the abundantly talented performer simply sing her heart out to one of the best, most soulful Christmas songs out there.
That’s an undeniable highlight, and worth streaming the special alone, as is a dream sequence that finds Murray on an all-white retro TV set singing “Sleigh Ride” with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney.
What did these people talk about? That thought is my Christmas gift to you, as is my insistence that you pay close to attention to Cyrus’s rendition of “Silent Night” that follows. It is gorgeous and unexpected—the best kind of Christmas present, one so good you never thought to put it on your list.
Best yet, at 56 minutes long, A Very Murray Christmas is the kind of holiday party you can just breeze by and drop in for—no big time commitment, and by the time you’ve had an egg nog or two you can leave, long before Uncle Greg is parked menacingly underneath the mistletoe, glass of bourbon in hand. (Though Clooney comes close with his creepy guest spot on the funky Albert King cover “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin.’”)
Perhaps when you heard that Netflix was orchestrating a Christmas special starring Bill Murray, and especially when details started trickling in that it wasn’t going to be directed by Sofia Coppola, co-written by Mitch Glazer, and co-starring the likes of Miley Cyrus and George Clooney, you assumed it would be a parody of sorts. The most pleasant surprise, then, is the hipster earnestness of A Very Murray Christmas.
The projected mood, in the Murray-ian way, is one of tortured participation, a Scrooge feigning the Cratchet spirit. But with every number that Murray croons with that signature bombastic sincerity, a sort of try-hard effortlessness, it becomes ever-clear that this is for real.
The measure of any good Christmas special is how much time you want to spend with its guests, its talent, during your already busy holiday season. Bill Murray and Friends are doing a Christmas special. It’s just by happenstance that he has the coolest friends ever, and therefore this is the coolest version of an ordinarily corny hour yet.