'A Very Murray Christmas': TV Review

A Very Murray Christmas H 2015
Courtesy of Netflix

A Very Murray Christmas H 2015

Music, mirth and celebrity cameos.

Sofia Coppola directs as Bill Murray welcomes chums like George Clooney and Miley Cyrus for the holidays.

Holiday specials function according to the simplest of principles: Whether you're awash in communal seasonal cheer or bah-humbugging it on your own, is the special the kind of party you'd want to attend for an hour or two? Does it offer a guest list you wish you could hobnob with? Is the spirit of the holiday boosted or enhanced during the duration of the special?

Premiering this Friday (Dec. 4), Netflix's A Very Murray Christmas is a boozy, snarky, melancholic gathering spiked with welcome whimsy, quirky celebrity cameos and effective doses of Yuletide earnestness. If there doesn't seem to be an avalanche of substance to this blizzard of nicely tempered sentiment, that's OK, because at only 56 minutes, A Very Murray Christmas requires a mere drop-in, leaving plenty of time to party with Frosty, Charlie Brown or your chosen nabobs of Noel.

While only a slight effort, Murray Christmas reunites Bill Murray with a pair of favorite collaborators. Co-writer Mitch Glazer previously honored the season with Murray with 1988's Scrooged (we'll ignore the recent dud Rock the Casbah), while co-writer and director Sofia Coppola steered the star to his lone Oscar nomination in 2003's Lost in Translation.

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Plots are rarely required in specials of this sort, but Murray Christmas definitely constructs a flimsy one. Murray is set to host a live, star-studded Christmas special at the Carlyle Hotel, but a historic snowstorm has shut down New York City, forcing the star to contemplate the misery of mounting a show without guests, an audience or viewers at home. He wants to quit, but his producers (Amy Poehler and Julie White, not playing themselves) and his bandleader (Paul Shaffer, playing himself) goad him into facing the cameras with urgings like, "Think of the troops. Right? And the kids? In hospitals? And pets outside?" Everybody has an opinion on the looming disaster, including the young man (Michael Cera, not playing himself) in the stairwell who wants to become Murray's new manager who warns, "This is your idea of a Christmas special? This is a national disgrace."

Very quickly, the special goes awry, but there are enough celebrities playing normal people and celebrities playing themselves lurking around the Carlyle that Murray never lacks for friendly people either eager or increasingly less reluctant to sing songs with him, ranging from classics that acknowledge the holiday's religious spirit to more secular joints like "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin.' "

One of the greatest pleasures of Murray Christmas is playing the, "What strands are connecting these people to Bill Murray?" game. Anyone can cheer an ol' fashioned Rushmore reunion when Jason Schwartzman pops up. Monuments Men gets name-checked, so you know why George Clooney is in play. Poehler's long campaign to finally get Murray onto Parks and Recreation appears to have generated a quid pro quo, while Murray and Rashida Jones have apparently done a number of projects together, but they're only starting to emerge. But those are easy ones. It's much more fun to get unexpected Osmosis Jones flashbacks from Chris Rock's early appearance or ponder what, exactly, Murray and Miley Cyrus have in common.

My own unverifiable suspicion is that Cyrus is filling in for Scarlet Johansson, and it happens that Cyrus' sexy-yet-solemn version of "Silent Night" is actually a musical highlight, albeit slightly below a group rendition of The Pogues "Fairytale of New York," which soars when Jenny Lewis joins in on the Kirsty MacColl vocal.

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From crooning about Star Wars as Saturday Night Live recurring character Nick Winters to the Japanese karaoke bars of Lost in Translation, Murray has never shied from bombastic sincerity as a vocalist, and here he has a strong sense of when to give himself the spotlight and when to nicely complement the melodies provided by a more conventionally talented visitor. Generous host that he is, Murray is also willing to be upstaged in comedic beats, though A Very Murray Christmas shouldn't be approached as a laugh-heavy parody. Even when he was a rule-breaking young comic, Murray had an old soul, and this is an old soul's Christmas special.

This is also a Christmas special for grown-ups, both because of a scattering of adult language, but also because Coppola's trademark dreamy/languid treatment of the material would bore younger viewers, kids who don't even know from venerable Hollywood maitre d' and Murray chum Dimitri Dimitrov and are unlikely to swoon over what is a very handsome depiction of the Carlyle's bar. Those ADHD-plagued tykes would likely rather see Julie White appearing in Michael Bay's Very Transformers Christmas with Skids and Mudflap destroying "Christmas in Hollis."

There's an idea for next year, Netflix.