A Very Murray Christmas has moments of sincere longing and awe but seems burdened by a story that feels cut short and incomplete. Bill Murray, playing himself, is the perfect figure to explore the bittersweet feelings that come with the holidays. His onscreen persona has transitioned over the decades from affable clown to meditative fool. Since reinventing his career in 2003 with Lost in Translation, most of his performances exist in relation to what came before. His persona as a star has matured and hardened, and it seems impossible to go back to the carefree days of his early career.
This transition from child to maturity is an anchor in A Very Murray Christmas, an adult take on the Christmas season. Sofia Coppola is able to capture the memory of what made the holiday so special when you were a kid – the joy and magic of childhood seem to haunt this film like a long-dead ghost. The delicacy of her filmmaking, which thrives on glances and fleeting encounters, works its magic here and fuels – for most adult’s – the real Christmas miracle, feeling something other than frustration or anxiety, if not for just a brief moment.
The first hint of that moment comes with the duet between Murray and Jenny Lewis, as they sing ‘Baby it’s Cold Outside’ in an increasingly chilly hotel bar. The lack of polish in Murray’s voice endears him in this song in particular – it helps keep the film in reality – and compliments Lewis’ far more exercised voice. The scene hints at the romance of passing encounters that transcend sex or love, but are hinged on what could be. It’s that feeling as a child when you see the stack of unopened presents, and the fleeting regret when you commit to another person all wrapped into one – the sense of anticipation and the fear that you’re on the wrong path. If A Very Murray Christmas could be summed up with one cliche, it would be bittersweet – light on the sweet.
That sense of yearning and contradiction is what makes the film so great, and is why it is so disappointing the film doesn’t quite come together. Not all the songs really work, some stall the momentum down to a halt. There are some really great musical moments, ‘Do you Hear What I hear’ is singularly the funniest moment in any Christmas special I’ve seen in years and ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)’ knocks the house down. Most of the songs in the final dream sequence I could live without, even if Clooney clowning around is charming.
My biggest frustration with the film is the lack of trajectory. What some people complained of Somewhere, I feel is far more applicable here: as wonderful as Bill Murray is, a bit more meat is needed in order for me to latch on. As keen as I am to see more hour long specials from Netflix (totally underutilized medium length structure is a secret passion of mine), this one could have really been longer. From the moment that Bill Murray passes out to him waking up on Christmas day doesn’t quite bring the evolution of his character together. While there is a sense that he experienced a quasi-magical evening subdued only by his expectations, the turnaround is not quite convincing.
I do nonetheless see myself seeking out this film on a yearly basis. While ultimately imperfect, Sofia Coppola touches on the regret of growing older and the possibility to break through expectations and feel something like love again. That love is muted and hidden but it’s there – and that’s exactly the message I need right now.