A Merry Murray Meditation
OK, I just sat through all 56 minutes of Bill Murray’s Christmas special on Netflix. Where’s my medal?
Just kidding. To be honest, I enjoyed it. And I bet there’s not a lot of people who will be able to make that claim.
I think the answer to knowing whether you are one of them happens in the first few seconds. If you laugh out loud at the first shot of Murray, you will enjoy it. If not, change the channel. I LOL’d.
BTW, if you think it’s possible for an article to spoil a Christmas special, stop reading now. Although I don’t plan on revealing any punch lines. People gonna sing, OK?
Bill Murray has had a fascinating career, and I’m one of those who think he is a comedy genius–but he’s so much more than that. You could arguably claim Mel Brooks is a comedy genius, but the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. If you were stuck in a room with just you and Mel Brooks, you would BY GOD not be allowed to leave until you were convulsing, preferably with laughter. If it was just you and Bill Murray in that room, you might end up trying to cheer him up.
Bill Murray’s second act came largely through his association with Wes Anderson, but I think the more interesting collaborations have come from his work with director Sofia Coppola–first the enigmatic Lost in Translation, and now this special.
Obviously, Sofia knows what it’s like to grow up inside a famous family. And Bill Murray, at this stage of his career, is mainly famous for being famous. His heavy lifting days are behind him, and deservedly so. (Someone should probably tell that to the choreographer who instructed Miley Cyrus to leap into his arms in the closing number. Even in a busy long shot, it’s apparent that the 65-year old Murray staggers, then recovers. A second take was out of the question.)
Both Lost in Translation and A Very Murray Christmas take place on the same hallowed ground–a celebrity sequestered in a luxury hotel, insulated from the hoi polloi and very much alone. In Lost, that’s due to being surrounded by a foreign country. In AVMX, the isolation is due to Celebrity + Act of God. But if there’s anyone I would want to be snowed in with in NYC, it would be Bill Murray.
That’s because Murray is a man not hung up on his shtick. Oh, he clearly knows he’s famous, but that’s not the way he seems to live his life. Stories of his consideration on movie sets to bit actors are legion. And he never comes across as anything less than genuine in these situations. He’s not the guy picking up the crack baby for the camera, then dropping it with distaste after the lights are struck.
So that’s the back story. What makes this special so–well, special?
For one thing, most of the laughs are front-loaded. There are some funny bits about Murray wanting to bail out, smelling disaster, being coaxed by Amy Poehler and Julie White (both in character–yes, it’s one of those deals where some actors are playing themselves and some are not. I guess that’s a function of how good your agent is?). Michael Cera has the funniest scene, and it comes early on, so again–if you came for the yuks, you’re mostly done after his bit is over. Meanwhile, Paul Shaffer lurks in practically every scene, but like a true sideman, almost never opening his mouth, and then only when addressed directly. Mostly, he’s at the keyboard for whenever the urge to sing strikes someone, which it does. Quite. A. Lot.
So what are we then left with? Christmas songs (mostly), sung by people without trained voices (mostly).
Your first inkling of what is to come is when Murray, desperately facing a show with no guests, ambushes Chris Rock in the hotel lobby and drags him in front of the camera to sing a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” And don’t for a minute think they aren’t going to do all four damned verses, despite Chris’s discomfort and the low range he is being forced into by Murray’s baritone. This is funny, for two minutes. It goes on for four.
And then the lights go out, Chris escapes in the darkness, and the “special” is cancelled. Leading Bill down to his natural habitat, the hotel bar, where an assortment of stranded guests are handily on hand to sing about their plight of being stuck in the Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve, with nothing but Bill Murray and a spoiling wedding banquet to cheer them up. Must eat it before it goes bad, don’tcha know.
This is where Murray is at his best, shambling about, playing the impromptu host of this well-heeled group of Manhattan refugees. Complimenting the women, comforting the men, auditioning immigrants, saving a marriage, passing out. As the microphone is passed from one guest to the next, and one forgettable Christmas song bleeds into another, you start to notice that Time. Has. Slowed. And so has
and you stop caring whether
George Clooney or Miley Cyrus ever
…and then they do. Which brings the whole thing to a climax of sorts, Clooney attempting a Ring-a-Ding-Ding Redemption of the Rat Pack (sans misogyny and Sammy Davis Jr.) by mixing Martinis for chorus girls on the white piano, while Miley shows she can indeed sing, especially when up against Bill Murray. We’re on a sound stage, because Murray is dreaming. When he wakes up, back in his luxury suite at the Carlyle, we’re done.
I don’t know about you, but I find it refreshing to view a Christmas special that doesn’t bludgeon you with showbiz dazzle and nonstop celebrities “dropping by”–a format already brilliantly spoofed by Paul Colbert on Comedy Central–but instead asks the musical question, “What if you were stuck in a hotel bar in Manhattan in a blizzard with Bill Murray?” And then makes you care enough to stick around for the answer.
The reviewer for Time magazine said something about this type of special being exactly what we need right now. I’m inclined to agree. With the rise of horrendous global terrorist attacks and domestic terrorists of our own making being churned out by hate-spewing demagogues seeking political points, it’s refreshing to remember that somewhere in Manhattan, Bill Murray and friends are sequestered, drinking in a bar. While reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas:
The color of your coffee cup.
Or conversely, Peace on Earth. Good Will to All.