How fun would it be if Bill Murray and his famous friends hung out and sang yuletide songs? Not as much as you might hope. “A Very Murray Christmas” has an appealing off-the-cuff vibe, but its ramshackle charms come with a severe downside as Murray and company laze their way through a half-sincere, half-cheeky twist on old-fashioned holiday specials. More miss than hit, this Netflix variety show stuffed with classic Christmas tunes is not unlike those gift boxes of assorted chocolates you get this time of year: Some selections are delightful, but many you’ll want to skip right past.
Directed by Sofia Coppola, who guided Murray to his only Oscar nomination in “Lost in Translation,” the hour-long “A Very Murray Christmas” finds the veteran comic star preparing to put on a live Christmas Eve television special at New York City’s Carlyle hotel. Unfortunately, a blizzard has shut down the town, leaving Murray without any guest stars and barely enough crew to put on the show. Disappointed, he spends the night with the hotel staff and a few random strangers trying to drum up a little holiday cheer.
Of course, this Netflix show’s conceit is that these hangers-on are all celebrities playing regular folks, whether it’s the indie-rock band Phoenix (including lead singer Thomas Mars, Coppola’s husband) who work in the kitchen or actors Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman (the latter being Coppola’s cousin and Murray’s “Rushmore” costar) who portray an engaged couple who hit a few bumps on the way to the altar. (Miley Cyrus, George Clooney and Paul Shaffer — Murray’s old chum from his “Saturday Night Live” days — play themselves.)
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The family members and longtime friends who fill out the ensemble of “A Very Murray Christmas” are indicative of the special’s laid-back, chummy tone. Not surprisingly, then, capturing masterful performances of beloved standards proves less important than indulging in the relaxed pleasures of, say, watching Murray and Chris Rock half-ass “Do You Hear What I Hear?” while wearing atrocious Christmas sweaters. “A Very Murray Christmas” rises and falls on the strengths of the individual musical numbers, so while Murray’s come-hither duet with singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a fetching, modest gem, too often the highlights are outnumbered by mediocre or strained renditions, such as Murray’s wincingly cutesy cover of the bluesy “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”
Ultimately, though, a viewer’s response to “A Very Murray Christmas” will probably be tied to one’s feelings about Murray himself. For a good long while, he has seemingly operated on his own hip, deadpan wavelength, taking on roles in films like “Rushmore” and “Broken Flowers” that emphasized his unique, often beguiling mixture of studied nonchalance and rumpled melancholy. (Arguably, his work in “Lost in Translation” was the apex of this minimalist, off-kilter approach.) But recently in lesser films such as “St. Vincent” and “Rock the Kasbah,” a worrisome smugness has started to settle into his acting, and that same self-satisfied adorableness contaminates “A Very Murray Christmas.”
Consequently, Murray drifts through this special with his familiar sad-clown poker face, and although he delivers a few clever one-liners, the prevailing impression is that “A Very Murray Christmas” has been made with a wink and a shrug, Murray and his cohorts struggling to find the sweet spot between earnest holiday sentiment and snarky sendup. In short, this special tries too hard to seem like it’s not trying very hard at all. Instead of being a wry treat, “A Very Murray Christmas” feels like attending a party where everybody already knows everybody else, and you’re stuck in the corner being left out of all the fun.
“A Very Murray Christmas” premieres at midnight Friday morning on Netflix.