While promoting her 2015 Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas, Sofia Coppola often mentioned the charming randomness of classic holiday specials hosted by the likes of Dean Martin, which came with the built-in expectation that, at any moment, David Bowie might drop in to duet “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. “I love the nonlinear, no-logic, anything-can-happen feel, and the songs that just pop up out of nowhere,” she told Vulture. That spirit animates her now-five-year-old special, which finds a loosely fictionalized Bill Murray stranded at the Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve amid a blizzard that shuts down production of his variety show. Forced to make the most of being snowed in with an eclectic cast of celebrities (some playing characters, others appearing as themselves), Murray bumbles from one musical number to the next with bandleader Paul Shaffer in tow, restoring holiday cheer to a depressed collection of people. The result is an ode to both the melancholy of the holidays and the cathartic joys of karaoke—which, needless to say, resonates differently in 2020.
Running a slight 56 minutes, Very Murray Christmas keeps its narrative loose and the stakes low, with few problems arising that can’t be resolved by the opening lyrics of the next song. Working off a script co-written by Murray, Coppola, and Scrooged scribe Mitch Glazer, the supporting characters rarely rise above thinly sketched archetypes: Michael Cera drops in as a blowhard talent agent, Maya Rudolph plays a flirtatious lounge singer, Rashida Jones is a bride-to-be whose fiancé (Jason Schwartzman) is getting cold feet, and so on. Every element of Very Murray Christmas lazily asserts that this is a minor effort from the celebrated filmmaker, but that looseness inadvertently allows Coppola to flit from one of her fixations to the next, turning the whole exercise into a guided tour of Coppola-isms. And the gang’s all here: loneliness and ennui set against an opulent backdrop; a retro-cool vision of city life; morose, on-the-nose song choices; every member of the band Phoenix, including Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars; and, of course, Bill Murray himself.
With all due respect to Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, Coppola’s loose trilogy of Lost in Translation, Very Murray Christmas, and this year’s On the Rocks arguably qualifies her as the bard of 21st-century Murray. If the holiday special mostly allows the actor to play a Rat Pack iteration of himself (“I love seeing him in a tuxedo,” Coppola said), its two cinematic bookends instead offer deconstructions of his star persona and slippery magnetism. As Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, Murray mutes much of what made him hilarious throughout his early career, leaving just enough intact to imply that he could be laugh-out-loud funny again if only he had the energy. What remains of Murray’s persona in the sunken, middle-aged character is wry wit and a sense of soulfulness, without which the movie’s bittersweet tone would fall flat.
On the Rocks, meanwhile, dials Murray’s debonair old-man charm up to 11, setting him loose on Manhattan in seersucker suits and vintage sports cars. The film largely gives the people what they want from the actor, allowing him to play a kind of elderly Ferris Bueller while leaving the emotional arc to Rashida Jones’ character (a single tear of hers, at one point, is shown falling into a martini glass). Despite its breezy charms, though, the movie proves surprisingly skeptical of the Murray character, underlining the emotional damage that people will allow him to get away with before they say something. In all her wisdom on the subject, Coppola seems to understand that peak Murray-ness can only exist without consequences in the realm of holiday specials.
Sandwiched between those two films, A Very Murray Christmas is best enjoyed as a complementary work, one that drops the larger-than-life Murray of On the Rocks into the melancholy tone of Lost in Translation and simply allows everyone to vibe. Fittingly, the special hits its stride in its middle segment, when the flimsy narrative collapses and the action moves to the hotel bar, where Murray leads a drunken singalong of an eclectic setlist—including a somehow non-creepy duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Jenny Lewis, playing a waitress. Of course, Coppola knows that the best Christmas songs are the sad ones, so the scene climaxes with tequila shots and the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” In the tradition of holiday-special randomness, the Irish sad-boy anthem concludes with Murray passing out, giving way to a giddy dream sequence involving (who else?) Miley Cyrus and George Clooney.
Presenting those scenes side-by-side, Coppola provides an easy summary of the special’s only real thesis: The joyfulness of the holidays is inextricable from what she calls their “nostalgic melancholy.” Five years out from the special’s release and staring down a pandemic Christmas, the point is a hard one to miss, and the karaoke options are far fewer. Most of us won’t be trapped in Bemelmans Bar on Christmas Eve dueting “Fairytale of New York” with Bill Murray, but at least Sofia Coppola gave us the next best thing.
Chris Stanton is a copy editor and freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and is usually looking for opportunities to talk about Jack Nicholson. He can be followed on Twitter @chrisstanton27.