Yule Be Sorry

The film critic Gene Siskel once famously remarked that it’s a pity how many movies are less interesting than sitting around having a conversation of the same length with the people who made it. This was, of course, meant to be a comment on the irony of the way an inferior product can make talented people seem boring, but certain celebrities reach a pinnacle of fame where they seem to take it as an instruction.

The Cult of Bill Murray has grown to the point where he can seemingly do no wrong; the skeletons in his closet remain safely tucked away and largely undisturbed while less affable actors have their every misstep tattooed permanently on their reputations.  There aren’t a lot of careers, particularly of actors in their mid-60s, who could survive the likes of Rock the Kasbah and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, but Murray’s general good luck in recent years of picking solid roles in well-made films, along with his gregarious relationship with fans and a hefty dose of nostalgia from fans of his earlier work, have rendered him almost bulletproof.  That’s how he gets to make something like the Netflix holiday special A Very Merry Christmas, and what will lead people to politely forget it ever happened this time next year.

I’m not sure exactly what to call A Very Murray Christmas; it’s not a television special, because it has the shape and form of a feature and wasn’t broadcast on a network.  It’s also not a movie, exactly, either, since it’s only an hour long and doesn’t have any narrative that bothers to cohere longer than the time it takes for someone to talk about it.  It’s directed by Sofia Coppola, who’s a movie director and a mightily talented one, but calling it a dramatic waste of her abilities would be a massive understatement.   She seems to be involved for no other reason than she’s friends with Bill Murray, as is the case with, well, pretty much everyone in the show.  Whatever it is or it isn’t, the best possible name for it would be Bill Murray and His Celebrity Pals Get Loaded and Dick Around at a Fancy Hotel Bar, but that name is too long for the marquee.

This sort of thing, the holiday special where some famous name putzes around in front of a camera pretending to be surprised when a bunch of his equally famous chums “drop by” and sing a Christmas carol between belts of Scotch, is by no means new:  it was practically a staple of network television from the early ’60s to the mid-’80s.  But it didn’t disappear because audiences got grayer; it’s not a casualty of a more elegant time.  It went away because it was fucking boring.  America very sensibly decided that it had better things to do than watch rich celebrities play grab-ass with each other, burning up hundreds of thousands of dollars on screen to no great end, outside the confines of a Super Bowl halftime show or an awards ceremony.  The hacks who populated this nonsense were banished to the realm of the Christmas album, where at least we didn’t have to look at them.

It’s hard to tell exactly what A Very Murray Christmas is trying to be in this regard.  If it’s an attempt at a revival, it’s not a success; while it meets the criteria of being incredibly dull, self-indulgent, and overlong, it’s not particularly charming, it has a faintly visible patina of archness that the oldsters won’t appreciate, and it isn’t very much fun.  (For the viewer, anyway.  George Clooney seems to be having a good time.)  If it’s meant as a homage, it’s slightly more successful, failing only on execution and on answering the question of why you would want to do such a thing in the first place.  And if it’s meant as some kind of semi-ironic goof on holiday specials, it’s even harder to figure out:  for one thing, who would be clamoring for a send-up of something that hasn’t been common on television for at least a quarter-century?  And if it was meant, even partially, as a joke, why isn’t it ever funny?

That may be the biggest problem with A Very Murray Christmas, which has a lot of them.  The plot is perfunctory in stuff like this, but it’s still pretty dispiriting to cast comedic talent of the caliber of Michael Cera, Amy Poehler, and Chris Rock, and give them absolutely nothing to do.  Cera and Rock disappear almost immediately, having delivered zero laughs; Poehler sticks around longer, but leaves just as little of an impression. Murray himself does his usual flitting around, being alternately blasé and melancholy, saturated equally with vodka and the sheer joy of being Bill Murray, but it’s murderously hard to discern if he’s doing an indifference bit or actually being indifferent.  A Very Murray Christmas isn’t even technically proficient; the lighting is horrible, alternating between blazing and ghostly, and there are continuity errors so bad that they almost have to be jokes.  You’d think that having Sofia Coppola behind the camera would at least result in a good-looking production, but she doesn’t seem to care any more than her Lost in Translation co-star does, with the result that everything seems nice enough but never quite seems to be in the right place.

Above all, A Very Murray Christmas is a musical, and so it could at least have the decency to live and die by its music, but it doesn’t even have the energy to do that.  Maya Rudolph tries her best with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, which is okay despite belonging entirely to another singer; Chris Rock’s painful gurning on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is one of the only real laughs in the special; and Miley Cyrus shows off her best voice, but it’s on “Silent Night”, which is a song too subdued to really do anything with.  Otherwise, it’s a wash:  the Beach Boys cover “Alone on Christmas Day” by Phoenix is as perfunctory as anything else in A Very Murray Christmas, seeming to exist only because the band’s lead singer is married to the film’s director.  It doesn’t have the good sense to retire the creepy date-rape carol “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and a denatured version of “Fairytale of New York” proves that it’s a stunner coming out of actual lowlife drunks like the Pogues but rather a dud coming out of toffy alcoholics like Bill Murray’s friends.  David Johansen wheezes out “O Tannenbaum” like it’s his death rattle, and as for Murray’s own who-gives-a-shit performances, they’re both forgivable and forgettable, with the exception of the frankly embarrassing clown-funk of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”.   

In a saner world, A Very Murray Christmas would disappear for a decade or so, only to be revived by wiser future generations as an object of derision à la The Star Wars Holiday Special.  But that abomination has already been rehabilitated by the Nerd Supreme Soviet; I fear that the same fate awaits Murray’s stocking full of coal.

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