Holiday specials are almost always a mixed bag – sometimes you luck out and get A Charlie Brown Christmas, other times you’re stuck with The Star Wars Holiday Special, and most just swim in a pool of schmaltzy mediocrity. Netflix’s latest holiday special, A Very Murray Christmas, teeters ever-so-sadly toward the latter.
Imagine a bizarre world where Bill Murray’s famous Nick the Lounge Singer act from Saturday Night Live was done in earnest, and you’ve got a good idea of the basic structure of A Very Murray Christmas. The premise is deceptively simple: Stuck in New York’s Carlyle Hotel during a blizzard on Christmas Eve after his live holiday special tanks, a depressed Murray must make it through a lonely, snowy night with his entourage (his Nick the Lounge Singer accompanist Paul Shaffer) and rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.
In many ways, A Very Murray Christmas deliberately sets out to make an anti-Christmas special. Directed by Sofia Coppola, there are glimmers of the existential ennui she’s lent Murray in the past; he’s the same lonely, contemplative sad sack he was in Lost in Translation, a quivering ball of self-doubt from which he occasionally emerges to offer nuggets of wisdom to an unsuspecting stranger. The first act feels like it’s going in that darker direction – no one makes it to his live special, Michael Cera’s sleazy agent character makes cracks about The Monuments Men, and he can barely make it through a single song before he (or the power) breaks down. In scenes where he drags an unsuspecting Chris Rock into the hotel to sing “Do You See What I See?” under duress (one of the few bits that work), the first act offers a lot of deconstructive potential regarding the empty spectacle of the variety show.
Once the special-within-a-special is abandoned, though, and Murray is left to scan his baleful eyes around his fellow marooned hotel patrons in the dimly-lit bar, A Very Murray Christmas gets boring, and fast. Coppola’s composition and style matches Murray’s own sleepy-eyed energy, but the sedate, dramedic style of Lost in Translation here feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The special is wall-to-wall with song, too, which is a shame when the performances are underwhelming; Murray has a decent singing voice, but it gets repetitive after a while. A Very Murray Christmas feels like sneaking into Bill Murray’s karaoke Christmas party: everyone feels like they’re being forced to perform for Bill, who’s the only one really having a great time.
To be fair, A Very Murray Christmas does exactly what it says on the tin – it lets Bill Murray run amok with his own subversive, slightly cynical take on a holiday special where everyone is miserable and the only solace that can be found is in a stiff drink and a group of strangers gathered around the piano. It’s a nice sentiment, and one that the special itself flirts with, but it should have cut out some of the songs and given the actual special a little time to breathe. By making most of the guest stars (Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones) characters instead of cameos, the special doesn’t give those roles anything more than the broadest of strokes. The novelty of seeing a bunch of celebrities gathered together to hang out as themselves – ostensibly the purpose of a holiday special – instead feels like a thinly-drawn, unfunny dramedy.
It’s hard not to feel like a Scrooge here, but it’s only because A Very Murray Christmas could have done better. It’s self-indulgent in a self-aware way, to be sure, but that doesn’t quite help it cross the threshold into entertainment. Even if Murray gets his Christmas wish at the end (in a drunken dream sequence on a large white set, with Miley Cyrus in a skimpy Santa suit and an amiable George Clooney sneaking out from behind trees to growl “Santa Just Wants Some Lovin’”), the world of A Very Murray Christmas is just a bit too impenetrable to have any fun. As much as it’s easy to adore Murray and his wry, laconic charm, it’s doubtful that this special will turn into a holiday staple.