Bill Murray may be the coolest guy in any given room, but his variety show-cum-lounge-act “A Very Murray Christmas” makes hanging out with the actor a dispiriting bore. Akin to a loose, off-the-cuff spiritual heir to “Lost in Translation,” which like this special was directed by Sofia Coppola, Murray’s Netflix-exclusive 56-minute holiday hour finds him spending Christmas Eve in New York City’s Carlyle Hotel, where he’s set to film a live TV show. Alas, since the city is blanketed in blustery snow, none of his on-air guests have been able to attend, leaving Murray in a particularly cheerless mood — and glazing the action in gloomy melancholy.
Despite feeling sad and lonely, Murray sings some Yuletide standards with Paul Shaffer — who’s hanging out by the grand piano in his hotel room – before being cajoled to get on with the show business at hand by his producers (Amy Poehler and Julie White), who blab away in a desperate search for a decent punchline. Even at this early stage, “A Very Murray Christmas” feels as if it’s simply stuck some talented people together in the hope that they might land a solid improvised riff or two, which gives the action a spontaneous vibe that goes along with its general late-night tuxedo-and-twinkling-lights aesthetic, but which also makes the entire proceedings feel tossed-off and slack.
Though Coppola’s sharp compositional framing is often enchanting, her visuals are in service of such half-baked nonsense that their charm quickly evaporates. Murray moves from his room to a stage, then a hotel bar and, eventually, a fantasy sequence’s sound stage straight out of an old Dean Martin or Judy Garland TV special, along the way crooning tunes in a manner that recalls his famous “Jaws”-theme-song sketch from “Saturday Night Live,” albeit played far more straight. While “A Very Murray Christmas” is wholly self-aware of its own artificiality, Murray nonetheless treats his musical performances with just enough seriousness to negate any potential humor. The star clearly wants to indulge his Tony Bennett fantasies, but given that his voice isn’t very interesting and his song selections are rather standard, listening to him wend his way through one ho-hum number after another soon becomes a snooze.
During these carols, Murray is joined by a host of guests, including Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Chris Rock, David Johansen and ultimately both Miley Cyrus and George Clooney. Watching Murray pal around with these famous faces — some of whom are playing themselves, some of whom are playing barely sketched “characters” — is fine as far as it goes. The problem, however, is that Coppola gives everyone so little to do that, as in Rock’s bit, it seems as if they’ve been unexpectedly recruited for some impromptu ridiculousness. That’s also true of an early encounter between Murray and Michael Cera (as a pushy agent), which aims for contentious comedic friction yet fizzles due to a lack of purpose or anything approaching a lively retort.
Together, Murray’s co-stars provide just enough star wattage to keep “A Very Murray Christmas” mildly engaging, even as they do so little that it feels like they’re just participating to humor their headliner friend’s flights of fancy. With no narrative to speak of, and no emotional through-line connecting its various vignettes – other than a general sense of solitude, and the desire to be with people you love on a cold winter’s night — this special comes across as inconsequential to the point of pointlessness. It’s a trifle fit only for die-hard Murray completists — or for those who’ve already exhausted the rest of Netflix’s streaming catalog.