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An appropriately bizarre musical Christmas special that will serve as great background noise at holiday gatherings.

 

Every year, my high expectations for a merry Christmas collide with reality in a flurry of pine branches, egg nog and sparkles, leaving me feeling a strange mix of happiness, exhaustion, and a wee tinge of disappointment. A Very Murray Christmas managed to capture this sentiment perfectly with its delightful musical numbers, bizarre structure, and mixed bag of actors’ performances. Bill Murray himself Skypes it in through half the show – he’s not quite phoning it, but he is not giving it his all either.

The special opens on Bill practicing with Paul Shaffer in his room at the Carlyle Hotel, revealing that he will be performing for a ghost audience. A blizzard hit New York City the night of his live Christmas Eve special, making it impossible to travel. His guest star, George Clooney, is AWOL, but his producers, Bev and Liz (Julie White and Amy Poehler), insist the show go on. Michael Cera shows up as a talent manager to throw a few well-placed insults, then gets out of the way. A power outage kills that plan, but not before Bill finds Chris Rock on the street and forces him into the funniest number of the show: a rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear? that nearly had me in tears. Chris Rock’s insane facial expressions paired with Murray’s deadpan is the peanut butter and chocolate of this Christmas special – unexpected and perfect.

Bill Murray joins the hotel staff and a few random guests in the hotel bar, leading to a series of musical numbers. There’s a plot involving Rashida Jones as a bride whose wedding was ruined by the blizzard, and her groom, Jason Schwartzman, reconciling after a fight. Murray’s Scrooged co-star, David Johansen, plays a nutty bartender, and Jenny Lewis’s waitress flirts with Bill Murray enough to give them reason to sing (of course) Baby It’s Cold Outside. But the strengths are in the numbers themselves. There are a couple stretches of dialogue that just do not land, taking the wind from the sails until Paul Shaffer comes to the rescue with a some well-timed piano chords.

Lackluster dialogue aside, the musical numbers themselves are consistently fun – Baby It’s Cold Outside notwithstanding. The always-funny Maya Rudolph makes a very compelling case for a show of her own. Her voice is strong and warm, just like you want at Christmas, and she does a beautiful rendition of Christmas (Baby, Come Home) that strikes a perfect balance of humor and heart. She’s the MVP of the hotel bar scenes, and I would recommend this Christmas special on her alone. Luckily, I don’t have to. Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman have excellent chemistry, and I thoroughly enjoyed Schwartzman’s valiant attempt to carry a tune in his duet of Only You with Jones. He also gets behind the drums with Phoenix for a number in which Bill Murray attempts to obliterate the band’s concentration with his musical asides.

When Bill Murray passes out and his dream sequence gives us a glimpse at the special that could have been, I felt somewhat cheated. The hotel bar scenes were fun, but it is here that Murray really hits his stride. Miley Cyrus joins him on a decked out stage in a sleigh for a duet as George Clooney pours Paul Shaffer a martini. It’s all cheese and glitz, but it’s the first time Murray feels like he’s committed 100% to the show at hand. Once again, though, it’s his female costar that steals the scene. Miley Cyrus, stripped of her Dead Petz and Bangerz, has a beautiful voice and infectious charm. It’s not easy to steal a scene from George Clooney, but she does so with gusto. Then the lights fade, and the stage empties, and she sings a stunning rendition of Silent Night. It’s a gem of a moment, a concentrated dose of Christmas cheer, made even better because it’s delivered by someone completely unexpected.

George Clooney gets a song and dance number as well, but I will not spoil that for you. Suffice it to say, it was the second biggest laugh for me after Chris Rock’s bit.

It is hard not to be charmed by A Very Murray Christmas, but I do think it suffered from Sofia Coppola’s direction. What was supposed to be cinema verite comes across as unrehearsed and poorly blocked. Clooney’s aforementioned number is oddly shot, and it feels as though some visual gags are lost in the chaos. Actors that could use a stronger hand, like Jenny Lewis or Rashida Jones, struggle to play along with Bill Murray, who appears at times to be improvising his way off that map. While it is clear that everyone was having a great time on set, they do not always let the audience in on the joke, making it difficult to stay engaged. Perhaps they should have let Paul Shaffer, who was the musical director, run wild with Bill Murray. The two have an excellent chemistry, and his on screen affability keeps things sweet, even when Bill Murray isn’t giving his all. Shaffer is both an angel and a Christmas elf, a guiding light providing the magic for this production. My Christmas wish would be for him and Maya Rudolph to team up for a similar special for Netflix next year.

While it’s not perfect, A Very Murray Christmas will definitely play best at Christmas parties in between plays of Nick Offerman’s Yule Log video, where viewers can tune in and out to grab eggnog during those stretches when no one is singing.

 

Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Produced By: Lilly Burns, John Skidmore

Written By: Mitch Glazer, Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola

Starring: Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Dimitri Dimitrov, Michael Cera, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, David Johansen, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Amy Poehler, Julie White, Chris Rock

Distributed By: Netflix

 

Release Date: December 4, 2015

Run time: 56 minutes

Rating: TV – MA

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