There’s an almost necessary element of fraudulence to hosting a television program. It requires being “on” and being yourself simultaneously—or at least seeming to. The gap between those duties is something Bill Murray has exploited brilliantly over the years, an irony that’s imbued some of his best comedy creations, like lounge singer Nick Winters. And now, when it comes to fronting his very own holiday special for Netflix, Murray doesn’t want to give up the game. It results in a special that spits and sputters when the star is required to play-act himself, but comes breezily to life when he dispenses with the semi-serious put-on, and goes full raconteur. The ghost of Nick Winters haunts the proceedings of A Very Murray Christmas more than a little.
The setup is as familiar as the idea of the variety show itself: Murray has planned a live television holiday special at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, but a winter storm has shut down the city. Bereft of an audience, special guests, or even elevator operators, he makes a brief but dismal effort at carrying on the show, until a power loss means the whole production can cut their losses, too. After abandoning his special, Murray retreats to the hotel bar with his musical cohort Paul Shaffer, where he slowly pulls the bar staff and their guests into a song-and-drink-fueled revelry. There, he alternates between seemingly improvised patter and sitting in on a number of tunes with his co-stars—or, as happens with increasing frequency, turning over the stage entirely to his famous friends.
There’s the sense that Murray knows A Very Murray Christmas is a little uneven, but he also gives the impression that he doesn’t really give a fuck. Given that there are few American artists as universally liked and respected as the SNL alum and Oscar nominee, this special trades on the lifetime pass of goodwill Murray has earned, granting him the right to gather together a bunch of his fellow stars and screw around for awhile in front of a camera. There are moments, especially during the special’s scattershot middle section, when the whole thing resembles a hastily assembled web series that just happens to be populated with big names. As Murray ambles genially around the bar, playing loosely with the charade that people like Rashida Jones and Maya Rudolph are random strangers, it’s a bit unclear what the takeaway is supposed to be.
Murray never really lets on as to his sense of purpose, meaning there are both funny and maudlin moments that don’t quite land, simply because the special wants to have it both ways. The first scene is an excellent example of this uncertainty: Opening in a penthouse suite, Murray strolls over to the piano, as a sunglasses-clad Paul Shaffer teases out the opening notes to “Christmas Blues.” Murray starts singing, as Sofia Coppola’s camera (which often seems strangely placed, like she’s not entirely sure what’s going on, either) hangs back, unobtrusively capturing the scene. Bedecked in felt antlers, he sings earnestly, his voice rough and gravelly with age; it’s both comical and sad, meaning it’s the 21st century Bill Murray we know and love. But as it progresses, he treads the precipice of his lounge-singer shtick, allowing for a retreat from the potentially affecting sentimentality. And so goes the special as a whole: Wrapped in a thick patina of bemused appreciation for the very conventions it sends up, it doesn’t feel committed enough to its time-tested formula.
That is, until A Very Murray Christmas goes full-on dream sequence. After passing out from the effects of one too many holiday cocktails, the special cuts to Murray waking up on a piano in the middle of an all-white soundstage, festively done up with lights, fake trees, and a full band accompanying Shaffer. This is where the special’s execution finally matches up with the absurdist sensibilities of its host. Flanked by a bevy of dancers, and a sleigh bearing George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, the gaudy aesthetic of this last section plays right to Murray’s strengths, as it celebrates the earnest showbiz nature of a songs-and-jokes variety spectacle, while still letting Bill be Bill. In this location, the back-and-forth irony and schmaltz live in harmony, rather than weakening one another. (Or, as Murray and Clooney banter to one another as they saunter offscreen for a Cyrus solo number: “Gosh, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” “Yeah… for a soundstage in Queens.”)
The rest of the special, unfortunately, bounces awkwardly from one tune to the next, never feeling quite at home in the faux-lonely-lounge setup where it all goes down. Not surprisingly, the songs performed by the pros fare the best. Jenny Lewis, playing a waiter, turns in a charming rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” aided by a vamping Murray. The kitchen staff reveals itself to be the band Phoenix, who perform a new song with the host, “Alone On Christmas Day” (just released as a single). But other numbers, like the group sing-along version of The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York,” come across as lazy and uninspired. The biggest surprise might be Maya Rudolph’s affectingly stripped-down version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which, for a song essentially owned by Darlene Love, comes across forcefully, thanks to the performer’s powerhouse voice.
And the comedy set pieces feel equally unsteady, as though everyone committed to a half-finished script, hoping mere proximity to Murray, the unquestioned master of improvisational dialogue, would somehow rub off on them. There are fitfully funny moments—Michael Cera’s preening agent is a highlight, and Amy Poehler and Chris Rock both do their level best, to uneven results—but the barely-there characterizations and half-hearted application of the special’s stagy premise prevent a real engagement with these sketch-like scenes. Clooney’s ridiculous contribution to the dream sequence might be the most unexpectedly entertaining part of the whole endeavor (the less said about that the better—to spoil it would be a shame).
Thankfully, there’s the through-line of Bill Murray, beloved comic persona, to keep the whole thing from sinking into the mire. He may be inscrutable—when he does an in-character complaint about how much he hates the whole idea of the special, and says, “I’m so alone,” it’s hard to tell how serious he is—but his breezy presence makes all the wobbly transitions and strange choices feel natural. It may not be the finest Bill Murray Christmas special imaginable, but it never feels anything less than 100 percent him. Veering between ironic commentary and committed goofball bits, he conjures up the charismatic charm that’s made him such an icon, and uses it to sustain this odd holiday treat. As he off-handedly remarks, en route to his doomed special-within-the-special: “Five cameras—I like our chances of somebody getting it right.”