There are plenty of moments sprinkled throughout actor Bill Murray and writer-director Sofia Coppola’s latest creative collaboration that ring with the same spark of ingenuity and charm that made them such an unexpectedly attractive pair in the modern movie masterpiece that was Lost in Translation in 2003. A little over a decade later, A Very Murray Christmas is a bit of a culture shock, offering what is an elegiac, variety show special, with plenty of its featured star’s oddball charisma throughout, and little bit of the spirit of its titular holiday at its thematic center. Add a splash of Coppola’s remarkably subtle hand behind the scenes, and you get what is sure to be regarded as something of a cult-classic in years to come.
Even as the production’s basic structure and driving concept is dated, harking back to an era of reality television unheard of by many who will likely stream the entire film online on a plethora of devices out of touch with the program’s formal debts to a form of entertainment long gone, there is an undeniable compulsory pleasure to be found within it. Murray is genial throughout, albeit in his own eccentric way, playing a version of the crotchety old man that has come to feel like a performance, both on screen and in real life. Whether he is trading cool barbs with Michael Cera, in one of the more surreal moments of what appears to be an inherent fantasy, or providing color commentary in between stanzas of well-known, holiday musical numbers, or attracting the likes of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus to join him in a broadcast event that may all have been a figment of his own late night imagination, Murray is at the center of the latest Netflix Original Program, however disarming and bizarre that may be.
Behind the camera, Coppola guides the viewer along with the winding, circuitous occurrences that make up for one wintry night in the famed Carlyle Hotel in New York City. As a filmmaker, Coppola’s role in her latest venture starring the former Not Ready for Prime Time Player is an odd one. For better and for worse, the writer-director’s presumed role as a storyteller is forgotten over the duration of the production’s fifty-six minute run-time, with all attention paid and lauded onto her enigmatic muse. The entire program appears to lack any sense of rhetorical coherency, and instead opts for the sort of half-imagined logic of its own making. Many plot points and operatic movements sweep the viewer up with all of the momentum that Murray has established unto himself over the course of his near forty years as an entertainer, making A Very Murray Christmas into an idol of near self-worship.
But there is a certain complicity adherent to the act of watching Coppola and Murray’s latest partnered production that makes up for a viewing experience never entirely as self-involved as it might appear at first glance. While watching what is without a doubt the strangest holiday special to perhaps ever enter the mainstream cultural consciousness, there is the same sense of familiarity, warmth, and joy to be found in the purest expression of the holiday’s true meaning. Akin to spending Christmas morning with those who are the most near and dear to oneself, Murray is something of a fixture in the grander scheme of Hollywood superstardom, simultaneously a part of celebrity culture easily citable, and entirely apart from it. A Very Murray Christmas acts in much the same way as its star, paying lip service to the holiday that it purports to celebrate, while offering a form of guarded satire that makes light of the very idea of its own existence.
After the credits begin to roll, leaving a well-rested and festive Murray looking out upon the picturesque expanse of a white Christmas, the viewer may be lost for words with which to describe, categorize, and articulate exactly just what has occurred. Coppola has never been more opaque than she is in this new project, offering another feature with as much largesse and post-modern self-importance as her 2010 anti-drama, Somewhere. Likewise, Murray plays every line and performs every action with all of the conviction of the master provocateur that he is, suggesting feelings and emotions, and positing questions and scenarios that will leave the viewer in a state of amnesia regarding the exact import of their source. It’s hard to clearly define just what A Very Murray Christmas is, or whether it is in fact any good or not, though its unstructured, stream of consciousness nature remains with you long after you’ve finished watching.
In short, Coppola and Murray have in deed crafted something quiet special, even as such praise rings as indefinably magnificent as can be. More simply, their new holiday special is a program that feels half-formed, and plays out with the same lethargic playfulness that Murray exudes throughout as the ringleader of a production without any clear narrative order, or easily defined creative direction. In an original program that lacks any individuated drive beyond the familiarity found in Murray’s performance and assembled supporting cast of well-known comedic and dramatic actors, with the odd appearance from the popular rock band Phoenix thrown in for good measure, A Very Murray Christmas is a variety show of the highest order, even as its various pieces don’t always fit together to form an immediately recognizable image for viewers to hold onto.
There is little doubt that everyone involved in the production of Coppola’s latest project were having fun behind the scenes, as there is not a single moment that feels phoned in, rushed, or without some sense of personal investment and drive behind it. And yet, the entire experience is so iconoclastic that it would seem impossible that there won’t be many viewers who will be left feeling alienated and betrayed by something that was packaged as a familiar tonic for holiday cheer. Either way, Murray is effectively in control throughout, making his new feature a celebration of the man that no fan of his should miss.