What are the common mechanics that make up a Christmas film: Love, family, happiness, togetherness, prosperity, sacrifice, sometimes even a spiritual awakening. Director Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas essentially defies all of these components. The film lacks an actual plotline, possesses absolutely no supporting characters who assist the narrative, and it appears that Sofia Coppola may have fallen asleep directing the film. Yet here’s the surprising reality about A Very Murray Christmas: This film’s success is in that this Netflix movie lacks these components that typically veer on the cliché. Truthfully, A Very Murray Christmas doesn’t exactly strive to be anything. It’s a film without a real narrative purpose. Yet when one looks past that this film isn’t necessarily a film, it becomes obvious that A Very Murray Christmas is a genius gem because it is reflective of an era of television that has become long forgotten: The Variety Show.
The plot of A Very Murray Christmas is so simple that it can be summed up in a mere handful of sentences: Bill Murray, who stars as himself, is set to have his own live television Christmas special singing some Christmas tunes. The threat of a snowstorm may halt this special from happening. In the process of preparing for the special, Murray himself sings, sometimes with others, a collection of classic Christmas songs. The minimalistic plot follows Bill Murray as he ventures from one location to another, bumping into notable celebrities, who sings some Christmas music with him. Even when Murray passes out from excessive drinking, we are given a dream sequence where even more Christmas songs are sung by Bill Murray with none other than George Clooney and Mily Cyrus. That’s the movie. Seriously, that is the entire film summarized. Notice there’s a lack of plot? That’s because there isn’t one.
A Very Murray Christmas is a disaster of a film…only it’s not. The genius of this film is in that it is a throwback to the classic variety shows of television’s first Golden Age. This era of television was integral to the formulation of television programming. These variety shows were most prevalent in the 1960s leading into the 1970s, which focused on a sole performer that everyone knew. What started with The Ed Sullivan Show evolved into celebrities such as Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and Bob Hope. These shows were devoid of narrative structure and were simply made with the purpose of enjoyment and entertainment. The framework of such shows were musical numbers, comedy sketches, and often featured celebrity cameos. These shows were an opportunity for audiences to see their favorite celebrities outside of the stiff, formal representation they often were associated with. Instead, you could watch your favorite celebrity sing a song, make a joke, and just have fun.
The variety shows of the 1970s were crafted around personality. The Dean Martin Show that ran from 1965-1974 was the most successful in this regard. Dean Martin was the suave musician, who also had the talent of being a comedian, making him the ideal host for a show. He was globally known and beloved by millions, which was precisely why his variety show maintained a strong audience throughout its nine-season run. Part of the show’s appeal was its simple framework: Martin would always sing two songs each episode. The episode would then be loosely connected with a series of physical comedy sketches that would get audiences laughing. Oftentimes, The Dean Martin Show would include guests, who would be given the chance to sing with Martin or on their own. It was a simple show, yet it offered audiences the chance to be awed, to swoon, to laugh, and to get excited.
In many regards, A Very Murray Christmas is nothing more than a Christmas variety show episode with Bill Murray at the helm. Like Dean Martin was with his show, Bill Murray is a tremendous personality and is universally beloved. The running gag with Murray is that it is impossible not to like him. Is it possible?! It’s not.
Outside of the fact that Murray has starred in comedy gems such as Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and Caddyshack, it is the unique personality Murray has that continues to engage and entertain many. For instance, on a professional level, Bill Murray despises Hollywood agents and doesn’t have one, which is a huge rarity in the Hollywood scene. In fact, it is near impossible for anyone to reach Bill Murray because he doesn’t provide any agents with contact information. Yet it is the personal life of Bill Murray that truly makes him an eccentric, which is the easiest way to describe him. He known for crashing bachelor parties and the weddings of people he has never met, karaokeing with strangers, and has randomly bartended at clubs. In 2006, while at a golf tournament in Scotland, Murray met a 22-year old Norwegian student and accompanied him back to a party filled with students. Not only did Murray bartend at that party, but he even cleaned the dishes before he left.
Most important, Bill Murray is an American gem. His dry sense of humor is oddly appealing. We love Bill Murray for precisely the reason that he is different. There’s nobody like him and we adore him because of that. He’s regarded as the very definition of the “coolest human being ever” and it’s because of this as to why his personality fits flawlessly within A Very Murray Christmas, which can be seen as his own Christmas variety show. His personality fits the framework needed for a successful show.
Added to that, A Very Murray Christmas provides the very components that make up a variety show. Musical numbers? A Very Murray Christmas has nearly every Christmas song ever written featured in this film. This is no exaggeration. Every conceivable Christmas song is showcased, nearly all sung by Bill Murray. This was also an opportunity to introduce notable celebrities into the film, such as Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, and Jason Schwartzman to sing a song or two with him. The songs aren’t given the stereotypical Christmas cheeriness that holidays specials overemphasize. Instead, these Christmas songs are sang in the same dry, sometimes monotone demeanor that Bill Murray exhibits. This works primarily because we wouldn’t expect anything different from Bill Murray. If he was being overtly cheery and singing these songs with gusto, the film wouldn’t feel right. A Very Murray Christmas conforms to Bill Murray’s personality, to which he seemingly makes the rules for his own Christmas special. For example, there is one point in the film in which Murray openly defies the Christmas song canon and directly asks a group of waiters to “play something nobody knows,” to which they sing “Alone on Christmas Day,” which is surprisingly one of the most memorable moments of the entire film. Like a variety show, the host dictates what the viewer is privy to, which is precisely what Murray does in this scene.
In a way that that is only quintessential Bill Murray, A Very Murray Christmas is quite funny and amusing. What often makes Murray hilarious is the unique situations he is placed within. While the film is not laugh-out-loud funny, it still evokes a sense of entertainment from its wry sense of humor. The film is sarcastic. Very sarcastic. Bill Murray’s lines are spoken entirely deadpan, almost as if he didn’t care if the film were to be perceived as funny or not, which is a style of acting he exhibits in nearly every one of his films. Yet, it’s Murray’s facial expressions of severe calm in the face of complication that often makes him inadvertently funny. It is as if Bill Murray decided the tone of the film and the notable celebrities who cameo must comply to that style. As referenced before, this links to the variety show framework, to which the central host determined the style of the show. Bill Murray has determined the style and tone of A Very Murray Christmas. The biggest evidence to support this would be George Clooney’s unintentionally hilarious rendition of “Santa Wants Some Loving” with Bill Murray. Clooney, who is regarded as one of the most serious, most hard-working actors in Hollywood has completely conformed to Murray’s style of comedy. Like viewers enjoying variety shows for the purpose of seeing their favorite celebrities letting their hair down and having some fun, viewers of A Very Murray Christmas get to see George Clooney let his hair down for this film. It actually looks like Clooney had a great time filming his cameo for this film and it gives viewers a chance to see a different side of him.
Part of the expectation of any variety show in the 1970s was the final act, the grand finale. In this final moment of an episode, the show would conclude with a no holds barred musical number or sequence that brought everything back together. A Very Murray Christmas does precisely this with a classic, almost cliché, grand finale of Christmas songs “Sleigh Ride,” “Silent Night,” and “Let it Snow” sung back-to-back by Miley Cyrus as the lead singer, with Bill Murray and George Clooney dancing nearby and singing with her. With the bright red color of the costumes, the white piano being played, and the falling snow, this is the classic expectation of the Christmas visual being met. This entire sequence is nearly seven minutes in length and in that time, provides the typical sentiments of happiness, togetherness, and cheer. It’s this sequence that guarantees the viewer to feel the Christmas spirit.
This Christmas special is unique specifically because it doesn’t conform to the expectation of what a Christmas special ought to be. With Bill Murray crafting his own rules, he has given viewers a vantage of a Bill Murray Christmas, which is comprised of karaoke, random encounters, and much consumed alcohol. Yet Bill Murray knows what he’s doing. The film ends on Christmas morning with Bill Murray singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” before looking out his window that overlooks the New York landscape. This subtle ending gives the viewer the impression that Murray genuinely means the words he has sung and hopes for the best for all those out there in the world. There is something surprisingly tender and touching in this moment, which is achieved in a way that only Bill Murray could do.
If you’re looking for a film with a specific narrative that leads a character to experience an evolution, you will be deeply disappointed. A Very Murray Christmas is a Christmas variety show and should be seen solely as that. With Bill Murray as its host, this Christmas special is unique and will likely be beloved by future generations for its willingness to be different.