It’s hard to be overtly negative about holiday specials without first coming off like the proverbial Grinch, so let me start out with saying that one of my favorite movies – not Christmas movies, just in the general category of movies – is The Family Stone. I have a very specific level of blindness for sappy yuletide cheer, even of the gloomy kind, that results in essentially anything with a Christmas tree and a Bing Crosby song getting an automatic pass.
So Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas – premiering on Netflix this Friday, December 4 – does, too; but it’s a pass with an asterisk. Directed by Sofia Coppola, the creator of every movie your annoying Cinema Studies friend wouldn’t shut up about in college, there’s a relaxed, off-kilter edge cutting through the 56-minute special. It’s different and odd, something Christmas specials are often too afraid to accomplish, and for that alone it deserves recognition. But in its attempts to tackle those “Christmas Blues,” it’s essentially a skeleton of a reason to get a bunch of famous people together to belt out a few carols near one another.
The special starts with Murray lamenting a blizzard raging across New York City (the Christmas movie cliche checklist isn’t so much embraced as consumed), which has caused a handful of famous faces to skip the live recording of his brand-new Christmas special. He’s sad and alone and his perky assistants, played by Amy Poehler and Julie White, really just want him to get George Clooney on the phone. That’s the extent of A Very Murray Christmas‘ scant plot, as the fallout of Murray’s attempts to rein in a bewildered Chris Rock – in one of the best scenes – sends him through a multitude of musical interludes, tangents, and dream sequences where he, you guessed it, learns the true meaning of the season.
If minimal in substance, Netflix’s new holiday special is overstuffed in tinseltown big-wigs. Rashida Jones, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and even a delightful Jenny Lewis all pop up for a chance to sing a Christmas classic. Jones and Jason Schwartzman, as a bride-and-groom pair suffering from a canceled wedding, are amusing in a quirky, hipster-heaven kind of way, but it’s Rudolph’s apropos-of-nothing appearance that gives the hour an endearingly scatterbrained, anything goes vibe that gels well with its breezy 50’s era nostalgia. It probably doesn’t need to be said that Lewis brings some of the best vocals to the party – I wasn’t aware I could love The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” any more than I did before I sat down to watch the special – even if she isn’t fully up to the acting side of things.
Still, it’s a late-in-the-game sequence with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney that seems to finally explain the entire reason for the existence of A Very Murray Christmas in the first place. Clooney is game as ever to participate in the silliness, but it’s Cyrus’ silky-smooth rendition of “Silent Night” that offers the hour’s highlight. Since they cap everything on such a high note, it’s a bit easier to accept Murray and company’s somewhat dour yuletide shenanigans, even when attempts at humor fall disappointingly flat, thanks mostly to awkward staging and line readings. You can tell A Very Murray Christmas was created with an independent, bootstraps-on budget and that lends the film its endearing indie quirk, but the seams still show every now and then.
If you can deal with the solemn, weird asterisk placed on Netflix’s new special – this isn’t exactly a family-friendly hour of TV, with cursing and languid pacing that will send kids scattering – then you may get just enough of what you want out of the proceedings. Even if its lone central daring act of embracing holiday malaise is lost amid the cavalcade of boozy cameos and gingerbread-thin plotting, A Very Murray Christmas has just enough warm-spirited moments to make it worth a watch this winter – or, at the very least, render it an amusing oddity of an icebreaker at your next holiday party.
More of a procession of holiday hits than anything resembling the rumblings of a classic-in-the-making, Murray's special still has just enough of a weird mix of somber Christmas spirit and vibrant musical numbers to make it stand out this season.