I was looking forward to Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas special on Netflix, but it turns out this is a case of all the good stuff being in the trailer. Directed by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Mitch Glazer (Rock the Kasbah), and Murray, A Very Murray Christmas has moments where it shines but too much of it falls flat. Murray stars as a version of himself, and it is reminiscent of Lost in Translation, as most of it takes place in a hotel. In this case, it’s New York’s Carlyle Hotel, home to Bemelmans Bar, where Woody Allen has been known to play jazz clarinet. The show-within-a-show concept is just a thin pretense for Murray to wander around the hotel and sing songs.
A Very Murray Christmas actually starts out pretty strong. Murray is supposed to put on an international Christmas special live from the hotel, but a blizzard has shut down New York and none of his guests or audience can reach him. Fine, solid concept. He doesn’t want to go on, but his producers (Amy Poehler and Julie White) insist that he do so, and they will just splice together audience reaction footage from previous years’ Golden Globe awards and videos of Angelina Jolie on humanitarian missions for his “audience”. That plays, but then once the power is out and the show is finally cancelled, the producers vanish and this becomes part of the special’s problem—no one sticks around.
It’s fine for the special to be made up of individual bits—like Chris Rock’s stand-out moment as an unwilling participant in a bad duet who flees at the first opportunity—but that’s a different concept than trying to have a story tying it all together. The problem is that the effort at cohesion is half-assed at best, and the result is messy and disjointed and not particularly satisfying. Instead of forcing narrative connections that aren’t needed in the first place, just let Murray wander the hotel and encounter different people with whom he shares a moment before moving on. For example, ditch the awkward conversations reuniting a bride and groom (Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman) and just have Murray crash their wedding—as he’s prone to doing in real life, anyway, which is a better joke than Murray poking fun at the people who take selfies with him. Then sing a song at the wedding and move on to the next room and song.
That’s the second problem with the special—not all the musical numbers are good. There are strong shades of Murray’s classic SNL character “Nick the Lounge Singer”—aided by Paul Schaeffer’s presence as his piano accompaniment—which makes me wish they had just committed fully to that and let Murray do the whole special as Nick the Lounge Singer. But instead he only leans on that character at random, which further confuses things as some songs are presented as comedic bits (Chris Rock), others are straightforward (Phoenix, Maya Rudolph), and still others ought to have been comedic (Jenny Lewis, in a duet with Murray on a supremely creepy version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, already a highly creepy song). Nothing flows and too many moments fall flat and feel inert.
But then Miley Cyrus shows up, and everything changes. In the hotel, Bill Murray hits his head and passes out, falling into a fantasy sequence staged like a musical number from a Golden Age musical, complete with Rockettes-like dancers and a white piano. Murray duets with Miley on Sleigh Ride—he’s not nearly the singer she is, but he’s sincere in his effort and the whole thing is charming, with George Clooney making martinis in the background adding just the right amount of absurdity. That’s what works in the fantasy sequence that doesn’t in the hotel—the absurdity, contrasted with Miley’s legitimately good musical numbers makes for an oddball and enjoyable medley.
And here, too, the delineation between serious and comedic songs works better. Miley steps back for a number—a clear marker that we’re changing gears—and Murray sings Albert King’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’”, with George Clooney popping out from behind a Christmas tree to sing the chorus. I couldn’t find it on Youtube, but here it is in GIF form…
…which only halfway captures how random and funny it is. Then Miley comes back and absolutely crushes a rendition of Silent Night. The fantasy sequence is so good you wish the entire special was just Murray doing comedy bits with his friends in between these great songs from Miley Cyrus. I never thought I would, but it turns out, all I really want from A Very Murray Christmas is more Miley.