Bill Murray welcomes you to his Christmas special with the look of a sad misfit toy. He gazes into the camera with his weary eyes and naked sad-clown face, a deeply grooved relief map of age and history. Over the years the former Not Ready for Prime Time Player has used that ragged deadpan mug for hard laughs in classics like Stripes and Ghostbusters, or to generate pathos for the offbeat, emotionally reserved directors he favors, including Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. So we’re not sure whether to laugh or sigh (or both) at Murray’s quiet hangdog hello—and we’re even less sure when he starts to croon “The Christmas Blues.” You get a glimmer of Nick the Lounge Singer, his exuberantly warbly Saturday Night Live creation, but mostly we get the sincere if strained soulfulness of a Blues Brother. Dammit, Bill, this is Christmas! Get with the merry and bright already!
The funniest thing about A Very Murray Christmas is the very idea of it. The acerbic star of Groundhog Day hosting a Christmas special? This is wildly unexpected, even from the guy who brought you Scrooged. His latest seasonal opus runs far in the opposite direction of that bloated, hollow comedy. It’s a bittersweet Charlie Brown Christmas for micro-feeling, irony-wired hipsters. And yet, Murray has surprising resonance. It may not be the yuletide cheer you want in a season darkened by terrorism and fear, but it does have a message that meets the moment.
The hour-long Netflix offering blends the conventions of the celebrity-hosted Christmas variety show—carols, guest stars, a loose plot—with spins on Christmas-movie clichés. Murray also winks at what we know about Murray, a famously prickly personality with a tortured relationship to fame and a heart for ordinary folks. He plays himself, in a spoof of grandiose ego. The wannabe Bing Crosby is putting on a live, nationally televised, celeb-studded holiday special from the Carlyle in New York. It’s a pure vanity project: Murray actually expects the Pope to attend.
Frightful weather scares everyone away, and the power goes out, pulling the plug on the show. Murray decides to improvise a boozy party for stranded hotel guests and workers. It’s here, after a sputtery start, that the irony thaws and a warm, lovely spirit takes hold. Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman play a bride and groom rocked by a ruined wedding. They are a problem for Murray to solve. Songs are sung; many drinks get drunk. Miley Cyrus pops in. But will George Clooney? O, brother, where art thou? Helmed by Murray’s Lost in Translation director, Sofia Coppola, with an eye toward gorgeously lit casualness, the special eschews cheesy chortles and earnest cheer and chases something more honest. There are no miracles in this holiday inn, but there is a credible, melancholy parable about nurturing love in the face of darkness—a small, precious gift for a blue Christmas season. B