Most of the time, Christmas specials are saccharine to the point of being unwatchable. The same stable of stars sing the same holiday standards in the same disingenuous manner. When I heard that Bill Murray was creating his own holiday special for Netflix with George Clooney and Amy Poehler as guests, I expected more of the same. Thank god Murray left all the warm fuzzies in a snowbank by the side of the road and instead gave us something depressing, bizarre, and entertaining that brings a whole new meaning to what Christmas specials are all about.
I should have guessed that this would be a morose affair when I read that Sofia Coppola was announced as the director—she’s not exactly known for her upbeat material. We open on Murray in a dimly lit hotel room with Paul Shaffer playing a sleepy rendition of “Christmas Blues” on the piano. It gets very meta from there: Murray is supposed to be performing a live Christmas special from the Carlyle Hotel, but because of a snowstorm in New York City none of his guests showed up (the Pope and Iggy Azalea are some of the famous figures listed on the reservation signs on the empty seats). What follows is a beautifully shot romp around the hotel, with Murray trying to find at least a little Christmas cheer with those who are trapped at the hotel with him.
There are loose plot points that lead into musical numbers by Chris Rock, Jenny Lewis, Phoenix, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, and Maya Rudolph, but no one’s really here for the story. A Very Murray Christmas is about the songs and the bits, and both are smartly presented with a melancholy edge that twisted my heart a little bit. It’s plausible that this is how Bill Murray really lives his life: depressed, drunk, and alone, but with the ability to bring joy and hope into the lives of strangers he meets.
Lewis is a lonely waitress whom Murray cheers up with some gentle flirting and a performance of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”; Jones and Schwartzman play an upset couple on their wedding day, but once Murray pops in, they sweetly sing Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light”; and Murray pours shots for the all of the hotel staff and guests, who gather around the piano to sing “Fairytale of New York.” From there things get really strange and wonderful: the action cuts to a fever dream of the holiday special that could have been on a shiny white set with dancers, a full band, and Clooney and Miley Cyrus running the show.
There are plenty of surprises that I won’t spoil, but for the “who’s who of guest stars” that this is, the end result is a relatively modest production that feels like something Murray really believes in. It’s the perfect representation of the elusive icon: subtle, emotional, and hilarious.