The good news is that A Very Murray Christmas is exactly what one pictures when one learns that Bill Murray (and Sofia Coppola, and Paul Shaffer) made a Christmas variety special. The bad news is — well, there really isn’t any bad news, because A Very Murray Christmas asks just an hour of its viewers’ time and delivers a perfectly enjoyable, idiosyncratic piece of seasonal entertainment in return.
In doing so, Murray, Coppola, and Netflix, which releases A Very Murray Christmas tomorrow, may have found the key to modern-day variety shows. There have been multiple attempts to revive the format in recent years; most recently, there was Neil Patrick Harris’ near-disastrous Best Time Ever, which saw its ratings steadily decline from nearly seven million viewers to four over its eight-episode run, and before that there was The Maya Rudolph Show, a one-off, scattered showcase of SNL alumni. (Rudolph herself appears in A Very Murray Christmas, a casting decision that’s likely a coincidence but makes the parallels all the more obvious.)
Unlike either of those projects, A Very Murray Christmas isn’t hosted on a major network, but a streaming service free to aim for niche rather than mass appeal. As one of the biggest stars on the planet, Bill Murray isn’t anyone’s idea of “niche,” but with a few notable exceptions, the supporting players are united by the hipster-chic vibe that’s both Murray’s and Coppola’s calling card: Michael Cera! Jason Schwartzman! Jenny Lewis! Thomas “Mr. Sofia Coppola” Mars! Combined with a mere 55-minute running time, A Very Murray Christmas both knows exactly what it wants to be and goes about it with admirable efficiency.
Like another notable Murray-Coppola collaboration, A Very Murray Christmas begins with Murray trapped in a hotel. This time, however, he’s playing himself, albeit a fictionalized version of it, and his companion is more musical, albeit less photogenic, than Scarlett Johansson. He’s about to tape a live Christmas special at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, but thanks to a blizzard, none of his guests have shown up. Tailed by Paul Shaffer and “producers” Amy Poehler and Julie White, Murray’s left to power through his despair and make do with whoever’s hanging around the hotel.
That’s basically it for premise, and even that’s more than A Very Murray Christmas needs. The meta plot is quickly disposed of when the blizzard knocks out the Carlyle’s power, leaving Bill Murray to flirt with a waitress (Lewis, in a scene sure to revive some old rumors), play therapist to an arguing couple (Schwartzman and Rashida Jones), and hallucinate a few megastars (George Clooney and Miley Cyrus) all by himself. There’s some wry comedy sprinkled in — Murray and Coppola co-wrote the special themselves, along with Murray’s frequent collaborator and writing partner Mitch Glazer — but as Shaffer’s presence hints, the music is the real centerpiece here.
The soundtrack doubles as an effective mission statement, combining standards (“Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Silent Night”) with more offbeat selections (Bob Dylan’s “Christmas Blues,” The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” — featuring David Johansen!). Even the standards, however, are spiced up; “Baby It’s Cold Outside” swaps out lyrics for banter from Murray, and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is staged as a duet with Chris Rock, who won’t be adding “singer” to that comedian/actor/writer/director multi-hyphenate anytime soon.
Most refreshing of all, though, is the merciful absence of the “spirit of Christmas!” treacle that makes most holiday #content so tiresome, not to mention alienating to those of us who don’t observe. There’s no spiel about the magic of the season or the power of togetherness, just a lonely man who becomes slightly less so — no tacked-on moral-of-the-story required. A Very Murray Christmas keeps it simple: a little melancholy, a little funny, a little sweet, just like its star.
A Very Murray Christmas is available on Netflix on Friday, December 4.