Perhaps only Sofia Coppola could have convinced Bill Murray to star in an hour-long Christmas special—a throwback to television classics like The Judy Garland Christmas Show—let alone one that opens with Murray crooning “Christmas Blues” while wearing plastic reindeer antlers. It’s lucky that she has, though, because he makes a consummate host. Self-deprecating and crusty though he may be, he’s not above making himself look silly at times; he’s up for anything. Like its star, A Very Murray Christmas cloaks its soft heart in a veneer of gentle irony. It plays a cool game, but it’s warm and sweet underneath.
As is de rigueur within the genre of the Christmas special, Murray stars as a version of himself. The show opens on Christmas Eve, as an epic snowstorm threatens to cancel a television performance Murray is slated to tape at the Café Carlyle. Murray spends much of the time grumbling and grousing, but as a series of guest stars appears—and a power outage causes everyone to relocate to the bar—he relaxes, as does the show. Murray duets with Jenny Lewis on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; he prompts Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman to serenade each other to Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” (not really a Christmas song, but whatever); and Maya Rudolph does a killer rendition of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).”
Coppola and Murray get to have their cake and eat it too: where the first two-thirds of the show eschew the gaucheness that one sometimes associates with TV variety acts, the last third shifts into a glitzier gear (and gets away with it by passing it off as a fantasy sequence dreamed by the passed-out Murray). On a glistening white soundstage in front of a bevy of chorus girls, Murray performs a handful of Christmas classics with some A-list help from George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. Coppola and Murray manage to wink at us through all the razzle and dazzle—they think it’s as ridiculous as we do, and that helps temper the gaudy slickness of the thing. I still prefer the intimate, unrehearsed feel of the Carlyle numbers earlier in the show. When everyone in the bar gathers around the piano to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” you forget that you’re watching Bill Murray and Paul Shaffer and Maya Rudolph; you feel like you’re watching friends play together.