As I watched Bill Murray’s Netflix Christmas special, I started to worry: has the Internet ruined even Bill Murray for me?
Thankfully not yet. Murray might be the definitive comedic voice of my lifetime. You know how everybody thinks they’re good at wisecracks, like they’re living in a Disney Channel sitcom, or something? You can at least partially blame Murray for that—he was the textbook smartass in his string of classic comedies throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and often still today on his talk show appearances. He’s able to pull it off spectacularly well, and almost nobody else is. As he’s aged his natural melancholy has risen more to the surface, but so has his fundamental Midwestern decency, with all three traits crystallizing his reputation as a kind of wise, morose, party-loving father (or even grandfather) figure. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is the defining role of this second half of his career, and so it’s no surprise that his Coppola-directed Christmas special trades heavily on that image. And although Old Man Murray is as superhumanly charismatic and likable as his earlier self, the Internet’s love of “weird” Bill Murray stories and embarrassing Bill Murray merchandise is pretty uncomfortable. I’d think Murray himself would be a little uncomfortable about this hipster hero worship, if I thought he ever even looked at the Internet.
A Very Murray Christmas plays right into that idea of Murray as a boozy wiseman. It’s a story about finding community in failure, with sad, lonely people forming an ersatz bond at a hotel bar one lonely Christmas Eve during a blizzard. Murray’s holed up in New York’s Hotel Carlyle, where he’s contractually obligated to host a live network Christmas special. That blizzard has killed the night, though, keeping both audience and guests away, including marquee appearances from George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. He has to do the show-within-the-show with or without guests, and the special starts with Murray, drunk and disappointed over this unfolding disaster, tie and shirt undone, plush reindeer ears on his head, singing “The Christmas Blues” with Paul Shaffer on piano. It immediately lets you know that this is going to be a bit sadder than the chintzy old Hollywood-style special that most of the promo material hinted at.
Despite appearances from Amy Poehler and Michael Cera, this first part of the special is hard to watch. Playing a harried network producer and a manager trying to sign Murray, respectively, every scene featuring the two land with a thud. Murray and Shaffer’s rapport, as natural as it’s always been, barely salvages these first 15 or so minutes. Shaffer doesn’t say much, mostly playing piano, but his upbeat riff on showbiz insincerity compliments Murray’s darker tone as nicely as it did David Letterman’s similar personality. Their relationship is one of the few things that feels relaxed in a show that otherwise tries too hard.
The entire concept of the show-within-a-show is an unnecessary wrinkle that’s quickly discarded. The special is cancelled right after it begins due to the complete collapse of the East Coast power grid. At least it gives the special perhaps it’s greatest moment of comedy, when a visibly uncomfortable Chris Rock, the only guest to make it out, does a painful duet with Murray on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” If you want to be generous you can view the first third of the show as a long set-up for a great punchline featuring Chris Rock and Murray in matching holly-adorned turtlenecks, but mostly this opening is dreary business.
It comes to life a bit as Murray and Shaffer retreat to the hotel bar, where they encounter a litany of guest stars who perform various Christmas songs. I’d question the wisdom of dredging up “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 2015, but Murray’s duet with Jenny Lewis works because he basically changes all of his lines to typically Murray-esque patter. Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and Jason Schwartzman all appear, a succession of musically-inclined second generation celebrities with varying degrees of musical skill. (Rudolph and Jones can really sing, but Schwartzman is a much better drummer than singer.) Phoenix, whose lead singer, Thomas Mars, is married to Coppola, shows up for a song. David Johansen (who also co-starred with Murray in his last Christmas vehicle, Scrooged, and who my friend identified as Buster Poindexter when he showed up, which would be like calling Tim Conway Dorf) leads the entire group in a touching sing-along of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” This section is pleasantly ramshackle, less interested in good acting or a coherent story than in creating a downbeat but convivial mood that fits the Murray persona. It could basically be a Tom Waits song.
Eventually we get a glimpse of the special highlighted in those promos. There’s a soundstage, dancers, Miley Cyrus (who, tedious attempts at shock aside, can legitimately sing like a damned champion) and even George Clooney mixing martinis on the piano and regularly popping out from behind a tree during a funk song. As intentionally cheesy as this stuff is, it’s more fun to watch than the rest of the show. Murray fully commits, channeling Nick the Lounge Singer from his SNL days but dialing down the camp just a bit. It’s by far the most elaborately staged and produced part of the special, but somehow it feels less fussed over—instead of trying to sell the melancholy of the Christmas blues, it lets Murray, Shaffer and their guests celebrate the goofy showbiz joy of the Christmas special.
I don’t know if a full 50 minutes of Murray, Clooney and Cyrus clowning around in fake snow would make for worthwhile TV. I do know that the material in the first two-thirds of this show rarely match up to Murray’s skills, and the segment that doesn’t try to present any kind of story is the most successful. Murray himself feels above it all—as happens so often with him, it feels like he’s waltzing through a random production and just saying whatever he wants to say at any moment, script be damned. The only guests who match up well with Murray are the ones who are either playing themselves or whose characters don’t have any defining characteristics other than their job—Shaffer, Rock, Clooney, Cyrus, Jenny Lewis as the waitress, Johansen as the bartender. Maybe if Poehler, Jones and the rest were allowed to just be themselves they wouldn’t have felt as out of place. As it is A Very Murray Christmas wants to come off as unique and effortless as its host, simultaneously sad, pensive, spirited and off-the-cuff, but too often it feels as forced and uncomfortable as the Internet’s cult of Murray.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.