Over the past decade and a half, Bill Murray has undergone a fascinating transition from slightly-past-his-prime comedy superstar to something akin to a kind of mythical folk hero. He’s popped up in eccentric, sometimes shockingly accomplished turns in buzzy indie films (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers), crashed people’s wedding in good nature, and seemed to contribute to the spread of his own urban legends (“No one will ever believe you.” Ah, but they will, Bill. They will.)
In a certain way, this makes sense. Murray’s charms, even in his most blockbuster-y heyday, always came from his lackadaisical insolence (see: Ernie McCracken, Kingpin) the projected air of a man who seemed like he couldn’t be bothered to do anything he didn’t want to do. So perhaps it should have always seemed likely that Murray would spend his later career doing precisely—and only—whatever projects might perversely tickle his fancy. A Very Murray Christmas—his new star-studded, Sofia Coppola-directed Christmas special which started streaming on Netflix last Friday—slots neatly into that vein. The musically-driven special is a seamless continuation of Murray’s sad clown fused with his “Nick The Lounge Singer” character from Saturday Night Live many years ago. (I’ve always thought a Nick-themed feature was a sorely missed opportunity for a franchise that once handed out movie deals left and right to even its most marginal personalities.) What I didn’t expect, however, was for Murray to release the most melancholic, alienated, and strangely, Jewish Christmas special of all time.
I’ve written—exhaustively so—about my deep, unfeigned love for Christmas, and the very real sadness I have experienced every year of my life at being semi-barred from being a true, spirited, everyone-gather-around-the-tree-now part of it all. As a child, I used to think: If I could just convince my parents to let us have a tree. I’d even show pictures of the enormous lighted evergreen erected in the middle of Haifa, and have earnest discussions about how the tree was not a Christian symbol, but a pagan one celebrating a festival of winter, which, given the amount of time my parents spent de-icing their cars every morning, we as Jews certainly experienced as acutely as anyone in Nebraska. I told them if we got a tree that everything would be all right. It never happened.
As an adult, I slowly began to realize that even if I had managed to talk them into it, the experience would have been a depressingly empty one. There would have been no keepsake ornaments or heirloom nativity sets at our house. No cherished Christmas traditions of cookie-baking or needlepoint stockings we’d have had since infancy.There would be no wreaths or Christmas trees. Or parents who suddenly and magically considered the drinking of alcohol to be a festive recreational activity rather than an onerous rite of certain religious observances. Or, as I’d always dreamed, a big, luxuriously ramshackle house in New England with five quarrelsome but ultimately loving siblings who would all convene around the Christmas dinner table one year to find out our glorious mother, Diane Keaton, was dying of cancer, but at least we would always have each other, roll credits. No matter how Christmas-y I might manage to get, I’ve always felt left out around the holiday.
What I oddly didn’t realize, until I watched A Very Murray Christmas, was that everyone feels this way. The conceit of the film, is that Murray, as himself, is planning to broadcast a live Christmas special on Christmas eve from the Carlyle Hotel, only to have the entire thing thwarted by the Storm of the Century, which shuts down New York City, making it impossible for any of his celebrity guests—or audience members—to arrive. Instead, Murray winds up hosting a half-lit impromptu party for a motley crew of semi-lost souls still hanging around the hotel: stranded waitstaff (played by Jenny Lewis and Murray’s Scrooged co-star and rock legend David Johansen), a quarreling bride and groom (Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman) whose wedding has been ruined by the blizzard, a mysterious woman in a white mink (Maya Rudolph) who seems to be something of a time traveler from another dimension. They sing, they drink, they eat all the food out of the refrigerator that’s going to go bad anyway. Near the end, Murray passes out drunk and hallucinates the Platonic ideal of a Christmas special, featuring George Clooney, Miley Cyrus (whose hauntingly lovely rendition of “Silent Night” has been making the rounds on the Internet) and a host of lovely chorus girls dressed as glamorous reindeer.
[Note: SPOILERS AHEAD] And then he wakes up on Christmas morning, hungover, alone, and with a whole day of hungover aloneness ahead of him. A man seemingly without friends, without a family, and with nothing to do on a day designated for nothing else than making glorious, sepia-toned memories with a rotating host of loved ones. Intellectually, we all know that the “togetherness” of the holidays can make a lonely person feel lonelier than ever, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it addressed so frankly in a Christmas special before. The final shot of Murray, looking out over the quiet city, is incontrovertible proof: you don’t have to be a Jewish kid without a Christmas tree to feel sad and empty on Christmas day. It’s an image that’ll stay with me long after the tinsel is gone.