A Very Murray Christmas review: 'I felt alone, adrift from the bafflingly positive reactions of reviewers in the US'
Pat Stacey reviews Bill Murray's Netflix Christmas special, directed by Sofia Coppola
There's a moment in Bill Murray’s Netflix-funded special A Very Murray Christmas when the star, supposedly stuck in The Carlyle Hotel in New York on Christmas Eve during a terrible snowstorm that’s shut the city down, groans: “I’m so alone.”
Bill Murray in a hotel, feeling sad and desperate and abandoned during a bout of existential doubt? Shades of Lost in Translation there? Maybe even a jokey little poke at the expense of the melancholy film that earned him an Oscar nomination?
Could be. Lost in Translation was directed by Sofia Coppola, and so is this. Or maybe it’s just an unlucky coincidence; a not-so-happy accident. It’s hard to be sure, because it’s hard to be sure of anything in A Very Murray Christmas, which went live on Netflix on Friday.
It’s a Very Murray programme, no doubt about that. The star sometimes has that familiar mischievous, deadpan twinkle in his eye, like he’s stepped slightly outside the script and is winking at the audience. It’s Murray at his Murray-iest, if you like.
But it’s also a Very Strange programme. It’s difficult to spot the line that separates Murray, who co-wrote and co-produced it with Coppola and Mitch Glazer, taking the ironic piss out of the kind of sentimental Christmas TV specials big American stars used to make and Murray celebrating them, swallowing the glutinous sentimentality whole and expecting the audience to do the same.
I am completely sure of one thing, though: sitting through what added up to a very long 56 minutes, I felt alone too, adrift from the bafflingly positive reactions of reviewers across the Atlantic.
While admitting it was a slight confection (a meagre few crumbs would be closer to the truth), the US critics generously snowed praise on it. One suggested it could become an annual Christmas viewing tradition, much like The Snowman is in the UK, A Charlie Brown Christmas is in the US (it’s been shown over there every year since 1965) or the Father Ted Christmas special, which RTE2 unfailingly shows every Christmas Eve, is in this country.
Another even claimed it was a comment on Americans’ confused and conflicted feelings about Christmas: is it a religious holiday, a heartless commercial ritual or a warm celebration of family and togetherness? In the face of over-thought guff like this, you feel like saying: “Calm down, for Christ’s sake (and Christmas IS supposed to be be about Christ, isn’t it?), it’s only a television programme!” – albeit one that’s not actually on television.
Personally, I found it awful. It’s not funny enough – it’s barely funny at all, in fact – to count as comedy, too toothless to make the grade as sarcasm, never mind satire, and Murray, who genuinely seems to fancy himself as a bit of a crooner, bludgeoning his way through a number of Christmas standards in a cracked, scratchy voice suggests he’s taking his ego for a sleigh ride.
The nonsensical premise is that Murray, or a version of him, is supposed to be presenting a live TV spectacular from the Carlyle on Christmas Eve. But the snow means his star guests, including George Clooney and Miley Cyrus haven’t turned up.
He doesn’t want to do the show but a couple of producers, played by Julie White and Amy Poehler (confusingly, some guests play characters, others play themselves), remind him he’ll be sued if he doesn’t.
Michael Cera pops up for two minutes as a wannabe agent who warns Murray his show is going to be “a Christ-mess” (he’s not far wrong there) and then disappears, never to be seen again. Murray spots Chris Rock leaving the hotel, drags him back in again and forces him into a duet on Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s supposed to be hilariously bad, but it’s just bad.
When the power goes off, Murray is off the hook and suddenly transforms from grouch to “the spirit of Christmas present”, healing wounded hearts, bringing a young couple (Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones) whose wedding has been ruined back together, and generally spreading goodwill. He gathers the hotel staff and guests – all played by stars, including Maya Rudolph, New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and Coppola’s husband’s band Phoenix – around him and pianist Paul Shaffer and everybody gets to sing. The lowlight is when all of them join in a truly horrendous version of Fairytale of New York.
Things turn ballistically bizarre in the last 15 minutes when Murray, the worse for booze, passes out and dreams he’s in a Christmas special on a snow-white stage full of sequinned dancing girls. Cyrus and Clooney show up after all. She does a decent Silent Night and Gorgeous George joins Murray to growl their way through Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.
It’s all desperately smug and rampantly self-indulgent. Netflix, untroubled by money worries or the restraints of network television, obviously gave Murray and Coppola a free pass to do whatever they wanted. Restraint, however, is exactly what this needed.
There could well be worse ways to waste an hour this Christmas. I can’t think of one at the moment, though.