“Man, it’s beautiful isn’t it?” Bill Murray asks as he walks George Clooney off a gorgeous white stage decorated with precisely placed spruce trees and blanketed with lightly falling snow.
“Yeah,” Clooney replies. “For a soundstage in Queens.”
The brief exchange, in essence, summarizes all of “A Very Murray Christmas,” an hour-long Netflix special beautifully captured by director Sofia Coppola, with frills aplenty in front of the camera and nothing special once when you strip away the excess. All the shining faces, gorgeous set design and pristine cinematography may not make up for a lackadaisical story that never really comes together, but there’s something magical about this one-and-done offering nonetheless. And I think it has a lot to do with the myth of Bill Murray.
Much has been made about the movie star’s off-screen outings. A frequent guest at random, unexpected and usually intimate events, Murray is almost as well-known for crashing karaoke parties and wedding receptions as he is for starring in some of the most iconic comedies of all time. Of late, he’s actually come under fire for his selected film roles, choosing a few critical duds while still basking in the glow of infinite goodwill. In “A Very Murray Christmas,” the titular star proves just how aware he is of public perception. He kicks things off by answering his cell phone and angerly questioning the caller how they got his number. Later, he’s specifically mocked (at least twice) for “Monuments Men,” a more recent outright flop (directed by Clooney). Murray even goes so far as to sit down next to a dejected Rashida Jones, saying, “You look like you would like to have your photograph taken with me,” in order to cheer her up.
It’s meta humor without being overly aggressive about it, but more so it speaks to exactly what Coppola, Murray and co-writer Mitch Glazer are trying to create with this tonally variant holiday special. On the one hand, it’s very much your classic throwback to the early days of live Christmas shows. Anyone with fond memories of Bing Crosby singing a duet with David Bowie or John Denver joining the Muppets for a few holiday tunes will adore the laid back pace of “A Very Murray Christmas.” Some moments feel so forced that one could be momentarily convinced its parodying the past, but sincerity wins out in the end (leaving those off moments as mistakes easily forgiven if you’re in the mood to be merry).
But that’s far from the full story, as “A Very Murray Christmas” is too self-aware to be a simple recreation of old-school variety shows. It’s most common function in the future will likely be as background noise at holiday parties, especially considering the 56 minutes are so light on story and heavy on carols it could easily be viewed as an extended music video — a video holiday soundtrack, if you will. Coppola has experience making as much, and she even incorporates a few bonafide singers into the celebrity guest list, from her personal favorite, Phoenix, to the odd-woman-out, Miley Cyrus (who doesn’t really justify an ill-advised solo number).
It’s a non-stop parade of celebrity faces, but none will be all that surprising for anyone who’s seen the trailer or read the synopsis provided by Netflix. “A Very Murray Christmas” isn’t about wowing you with the names it’s able to snag — after all, they found Bill Murray, so bringing in George Clooney, Amy Poehler and Chris Rock is no big deal. Instead, it seems designed to draw you into Murray’s worldview, perhaps even his day-to-day life with the slightest exaggeration of celebrity guests and spontaneous songs (though undoubtedly both happen fairly often). It’s more merry than melancholy, but the story features a pensive Murray staring out the window at a cold, quiet New York City; the glass acting as both a barrier to the outside world of your Average Joe Citizen and a window that only opens so often to stars of his stature.
Murray’s character (who is, of course, Bill Murray), rebels against his celebrity trappings, begging to be released from a live holiday special filled with famous “friends” before having an intimate evening with the staff and few remaining hotel patrons. He’s more at home with strangers than actors he might have met once or twice, and this seems to be the main takeaway, story-wise. Coppola focuses on examining the experience, and, even if its a largely superficial look at what it’s like to be Bill Murray, “A Very Murray Christmas” comes close to manufacturing that reality; the setting of a surprise night in with Murray and what might happen if you were lucky enough to be there when he shows up.
In the end, “A Very Murray Christmas” delivers exactly what’s been promised all along — a show! — and it’s here that the exchange between Murray and Clooney takes place. It’s as though Murray, Coppola & Co. know exactly what’s fake and what’s real, but only ever so slightly separate the two for the audience. Some celebrities play themselves while others are thinly-veiled characters — and still a few more are completely cloaked talents. Perhaps in a more finely-tuned effort, one could argue they’re trying to show there’s no line between celebrities and the rest of us. Yet its only connective thematic tissue is Murray himself, making the special more of an attempt to prove that even a lonely man — or, more specifically, a lone man — can do more than just survive the holidays. But in the end, “A Very Murray Christmas” is ultimately just that: an honest attempt to be merry and an even more direct explanation of what it’s like to be Murray.
“A Very Murray Christmas” premieres on Netflix December 4.