For better or worse, holiday programming has evolved over the decades—from the cheesy-sweater sincerity of Andy Williams and Perry Como, to the cynical more recent stuff, such as the Christmas movies Bad Santa, Krampus and Scrooged.
Falling somewhere in the middle is A Very Murray Christmas, which went live on Netflix Friday. The special, just short of an hour, features an awful lot of singing from host Bill Murray, and I can’t quite tell if he’s going for laughs or not. The beloved funnyman’s creaky crooning isn’t off-key enough to garner yuks, like it was when Murray sang “Star Wars” on SNL decades ago, yet isn’t exactly good enough to be entertainment in its own right.
Bill Murray—who starred as an Ebenezer-ian TV exec in Scrooged—is a tough one to read.
Sofia Coppola, who spotlighted a different side of Murray while directing Lost in Translation, again taps his melancholy mien in Very Murray. A massive snowstorm has shut down New York just as Murray is set to perform at the Café Carlyle. He must be coerced into performing, and the show is canceled halfway through the first song. The posh hotel canteen ends up as something of a survivors’ party with Murray, of course, the life of it.
As with any Christmas special worth its salt, celeb guests abound—Amy Poehler as Murray’s frustrated handler, Michael Cera as an oily agent, Chris Rock as a sidewalk passerby bullied into taking the stage with Murray for a “Do You Hear What I Hear?” duet, one of the few numbers that is clearly going for laughs.
Other guests include Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman and David Johansen. Paul Shaffer plays piano. Everyone sings. Johansen and Murray pair up for one of the special’s brighter tracks, a cover of The Pogues’ twisted holiday paean “Fairytale of New York”, yet leave the most memorable versus out.
Amidst the blizzard, Murray laments that his A-list guests, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, won’t be able to get to the venue. It’s a Christmas special storyline older than your grandma’s fruitcake recipe—foul weather threatens the arrival of a beloved guest, but, lo and behold, soldiering through the snow is Pa Walton, Santa Claus and Miley Cyrus.
Mitch Glazer wrote the special along with Murray and Coppola, but it’s tough to tell how much is scripted, and—given the cast and the loose nature of a Netflix one-off—how much is improvised. Whether it’s in Murray’s hotel room or the hotel lounge, the production is rather dark, the lighting matching the mood. Despite Murray’s pedigrees, Very Murray isn’t exactly a comedy. “Neither fish nor fowl,” is how one network comedy vet described it to me.
Most Netflix specials revolve around comics, such as those from Mike Epps and Chelsea Peretti. A Very Murray Christmas is a different animal—a way offbeat, ensemble cast-driven vehicle that’s too weird for broadcast, like those yule specials of yore. But on Netflix, it feels—like Pa Walton on Christmas Eve—safe at home.