Netflix's star-studded modern Christmas story has its moments but leaves us wanting something more
Earlier this month Netflix began streaming its very own Christmas special, A Very Murray Christmas — a short musical comedy written by Bill Murray, Mitch Glazer and Sofia Coppola. In it, we’re introduced to a rueful Bill Murray playing himself — steeped in an aching loneliness that’s so raw and unadulterated that it’s, well, funny. To a point.
Murray’s character is all set to host a Christmas special in New York City, but an encroaching blizzard has kept all of the show’s other stars from attending. Despite his self-deprecating pleas, the show is scheduled to go on. And it does — kind of — but the power goes out just as Murray and Chris Rock are droning out one of the most unsettling yet disturbingly captivating renditions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Murray, having nothing else to do on Christmas Eve, does what you would fully expect and saunters to the Carlyle Hotel’s bar.
At the start, I was quite hooked and entertained. Murray — fully buttoned in his iconic deadpan irony — starts strong as the miserable celebrity who can’t stand his own weathered reflection. His droll cast members, played by the likes of Amy Poehler, Julie White and Michael Cera, dole out solid, if brief, performances. However, as the film continues, stacked to the brim with classic and-not-so-classic Yuletide songs performed by Murray and the cast, it treads awfully close to laborious.
The film drips of muted despair. Beneath the bleary eyes and tight dialogue, Murray’s character is lonely, restless and unsettled; as he begs his producers to cancel the show, he howls that God hates him. To this, someone responds, “Forgive me, Mr. Murray, but God is your biggest fan. Number-one fan. Truly a huge fan.”
The words cut through the sarcasm, but it seems Murray just can’t quite bring himself to believe it.
To be fair, A Very Murray Christmas offers moments of subtle grace, even if they are few and far between. At the hotel bar, Murray facilitates the reconciliation of an engaged couple who are fighting because the nasty weather has ruined their wedding. Murray asks them to remember and then give voice to the one moment they realized they loved each other. When they do, the corners of Murray’s lips curl ever so slightly for the first time, coming precariously close to a smile.
There are moments, in other words, when light makes a cameo, and we witness Murray thinking of others, repelling himself from a despair nurtured by a cocooning self-centeredness, and they are where — despite sounding cliché — the spirit of Christmas breaches into view and affirms that our deepest joy comes from loving others. The film vaguely understands and conveys this, but it’s not meaty enough, and we’re left wondering if Murray’s character will even remember anything — or anyone — the next day.
Of course, no one expects a self-indulgent, comedic production like this one to pan over a nativity scene at the end, but the problem is it really doesn’t pan over anything. When Murray passes out drunk after midnight on Christmas Day, he dreams he is whisked to a White Christmas-esque soundstage with festive lights and faux snow. George Clooney and Miley Cyrus — in what’s seemingly a bona fide Christmas miracle — glide onto stage as if they’re fresh off a Target commercial. But even during this oneiric scene, as Miley Cyrus bellows “Christ the Savior is born,” we don’t believe her, or anything, and we are left wanting something more redeeming — something more authentic to Christmas.
In the end it feels hollow, like a waxy department store that’s replaced “Christmas” with “Holiday” and Christ with Santa Claus; it’s reflective of the festive bustle these days that speaks to a bland altruism rather than an Incarnational love. A willingness to dare that blandness and move beyond what is safe amid the secularists would have been remarkable and memorable.
It’s appropriate, therefore, that in response to Murray’s remark about how beautiful everything looks, Clooney says, “Yeah, for a soundstage in Queens.” Clooney is right. A Very Murray Christmas is shiny, and at times cautiously touching, but it doesn’t offer anything authentic to the season, or “Christian” in the full sense — it is a superficially lit, crowded and noisy performance that misses the mark by a dare.