Snow falls on New York City and Bill Murray resides in a dimly lit hotel suite at the start of Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas. Accompanied by Paul Shaffer’s jazzy piano, the actor—playing himself—belts out a melancholy tune about the sadness of Christmastime. The scene somehow feels perfectly suited to Murray, whose slightly off-key vocals and ruffled appearance nonetheless convey his intangible larger-than-life screen presence. The song ends and a comfortable silence fills the room only for a moment as Murray and Shaffer exchange casual niceties. Duty soon calls for the actor, however, who’s quickly surrounded by handlers and Hollywood types whisking him away and giving him pep talks as he prepares to host a live Christmas special.
Taking the form of a variety show strewn together by seemingly random musical interludes comically interrupting the narrative, A Very Murray Christmas fashions a delirious adventure in which Murray moseys about the Carlyle Hotel’s hallways and ballrooms, sharing drinks and songs with individuals he happens upon. The mood is relaxed, with characters and celebrities (also often playing versions of themselves) popping in and out to accompany Murray in song, the highlight of which is Murray’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet with an apparently unsuspecting waitress (Jenny Lewis).
While its borrowed musical styles and variety-show structure suggest an intense self-awareness, A Very Murray Christmas addresses a fundamentally deeper range of feeling than most Christmas specials are prescribed to explore. Murray’s at once magnetic and detached demeanor isn’t particularly distinct from various other characters he’s played, but his interactions with others also orphaned in the building elevate this special beyond mere parody or throwback. Amid his ongoing search for alcohol, he meets an estranged bride and groom (Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman) whose wedding, and potentially their future together, has fallen apart. Perhaps channeling the wisdom gained from his own failures, Murray gently guides the two back together with his simple observations—and songs, of course—about love.
Murray has given many variations on defeated shells of men, but his work here is arguably most reminiscent of Lost in Translation’s Bob Harris. In fact, A Very Murray Christmas’s emphasis on the connection between strangers makes it something of a spiritual cousin to Coppola’s 2003 film. But it replaces Lost in Translation’s endless neon-encrusted cityscapes with a deceptively warm aesthetic and cramped hotel kitchens and bars. In so doing, A Very Murray Christmas takes subtle aim at pandering modern-day holiday traditions in which simulations of joy are the only form of currency.
While some of the musical set pieces invoke classic Christmas songs, none have a particularly joyful vibe beyond the unspoken exchanges between characters that connect over their mutual loneliness. Nevertheless, A Very Murray Christmas doesn’t so much expose the Christmas season itself as fraudulent as it shines a light on the heightened sense of personal despair associated with the season that the manufactured holiday songs and television specials strategically ignore.
Evidence that A Very Murray Christmas doesn’t entirely reject the more jovial holiday-season musical traditions is the delightfully absurd final act in which Murray apparently falls into an alcohol-induced trance. The sequence, inspired by holiday classics of yesteryear, sees the actor join Miley Cyrus and George Clooney on a massive soundstage overflowing with Christmas decorations basked in fluorescent light. It’s a gleeful display of song and dance that conjures a fleeting nostalgia and exhilaration that even the hardest of hearts can fall for in late December. Alas, it doesn’t erase the sorrow that Murray is bound to wake up to in the morning, but the feelings stirred are no less real because of it.
The special’s extravagant throwback moments account for the easiest laughs, but leaving the deepest mark are the chance encounters and tacit exchanges between characters that poignantly articulate the complicated, often fleeting simultaneity of joy and sadness. Performed and captured without any strain, but also charged with wistful longing, such moments are a reflection of Coppola’s ability to find transcendence in the quietly observed delights of ordinary moments of connection shared by strangers.