Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review: A Very Murray Christmas

By Lars Trodson

There is no doubt that Bill Murray is a dry, dour comedian. He has a classic, sad sack face. His eyes are sad. He has Lenny Bruce eyes. But he's insanely funny. I was unaware, I must admit, how much Bill Murray meant to people until I saw the film "The Grand Budapest Hotel." The audience I saw that movie with was having none of it, but there was a moment when Murray showed up and the audience awoke and cheered. All he had to to do was show his face, and he made people happy.

He's in a slightly melancholy mood in "A Very Murray Christmas." And everything about the marketing, from the consciously schlocky title (the image of Murray in a Santa Claus hat is also takeoff of a very famous Bing Crosby Christmas album cover), to the opening shot of Murray looking out on a snowy Manhattan while wearing a pair of reindeer antlers, is meant to convey the post-ironic comedic movement that Murray helped found. But what happens to the show, which runs all of 56 minutes and is presented by Netflix, is that it slowly runs out of irony and becomes quite lovely and something truly wonderful.

Murray is right about the holidays anyway. There is something melancholy about them, and its that very loneliness that so many people forcibly, yet somewhat unsuccessfully, try to push away. Murray recognizes that slight unease, but then he does something that so many other supposed mirth-makers have failed at, he actually makes the melancholy disappear.

(If you watch the show and wonder why it looks so dark, my guess is that director Sofia Coppola is having a little fun, too, by aping the famously dark look of her father's "Godfather" movies, which were   photographed by the great Gordon Willis.)

It doesn't get off to a great start. Although I liked Murray singing "Christmas Blues" at the very beginning, the recruitment of Chris Rock was unnecessary and forced, and it seemed for a moment that maybe this wasn't going to work.

But: Amy Poehler and Julie White arrive and are laugh-out loud funny as the showrunners — is that the fashionable term? — for the show-within-the-show that Murray is presenting downstairs at Bemelmans Bar at the The Carlyle in New York. But the city is snowbound and Murray thinks the show will be a disaster because no one has shown up. Poehler and White push him downstairs and force him into the bar. Mid-way through a song he tries to run outside, and that's when he runs into Chris Rock.

A power outage sabotages the show, and that's when things start to warm up. Jenny Lewis shows up to sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Murray (Paul Shaffer is on the piano throughout), and I knew I was in good company. I was a little disenchanted when I saw Rashida Jones, who has a pleasing presence but just isn't terribly funny, but she was fine and she has a beautiful voice. She looked goofy in her dress, and when they all returned to Bemelmans Bar the mood had changed and the whole thing started to glow. There is a band called Pheonix that sang a great song that I did not know, but it was a terrific Christmas song, and Murray lunging at the microphone to sing background every once in a while is perfect. The moment when Murray tried to get some waiters to sing a Christmas carol, he hits another truth when he says that no one knows the second verse of "Good King Wenceslas." When I realized that the bartender was David Johansen, in Buster Poindexter mode, it hit me: This show was a crackpot classic. When the gorgeous dancers twirled around Murray and he starts asking how big their shoe size is, I didn't just laugh, I realized this little show was making me happy.

The Pogues' "Fairy Tale of New York" is not anyone's idea of a feel-good carol (they did cut some of the rougher verses), but the company singing it is so enchanting you'll be both smiling and crying. At the end of that song, Murray does one too many shots and the show becomes inspired lunacy.

Everyone is wonderful: Maya Rudolph (she stops the show with a knockout performance and ends it on a graceful comedic note), Miley Cyrus (terrific), Johansen, George Clooney, Michael Cera — just great — and even the guy who plays Murray's valet — some guy named Dimitri — is very, very funny. "Mr. Murray, God is your number one fan. Truly a huge fan, Mr. Murray."

No doubt.

"A Very Murray Christmas" is a Netflix original. It was directed with a very sure hand by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Murray and Mitch Glazer.