What is it with Sofia Coppola and hotels? She has a thing for dejected creative types reassessing their lives while bouncing off various guests and employees. It happened in L.A. in Somewhere, and put her in Tokyo with 2003’s Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray. Now Murray and Coppola are back, stuck in a hotel in New York. But this time there’s more to be merry about: It’s Christmas time. A Very Murray Christmas — directed by Coppola and written by her, Murray, and Mitch Glazer — is a curious throwback to old-school holiday musical classics that just premiered on Netflix. It’s also the most distilled example of the reinvention and meme-ification of Bill Murray that Coppola helped usher in more than a decade ago.
Bill Murray is a living legend, a comedy god. He’s transcended mere acting and reached the point of being a real symbol, which led to him becoming an indistinct but nearly ubiquitous meme. It’s what the random corners of the internet do best, and it’s partly of Murray’s making. He can do whatever he wants and people love him for it, even when they don’t.
Whenever he pops up to do a random but totally self-conscious thing with complete strangers like play kickball or walk down a hallway in slow motion, the internet is there to lap it up, ensuring maximum meme-ability. It’s to the point where you get suspicious when you don’t hear about Bill Murray doing something.
A Very Murray Christmas captures this pop-culture-phenom Murray and builds a world around him. In it, a semi-fictional version of Murray is set to perform a live Christmas-themed broadcast from New York’s Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve. But a massive blizzard shuts down the city, effectively ruining the performance by shutting out the big-name stars — Paul McCartney, Pope Francis, Iggy Azalea. What follows is Murray and the still star-studded employees and guests of the hotel — including characters played by Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, and more — making do by singing off-key Christmas tunes to pass the time. Eventually it devolves into a George Clooney-haunted, Miley Cyrus-laden Christmas fever dream.
It’s a nakedly old-fashioned idea: Gather a bunch of celebrities around another iconic celebrity for a song-and-dance Christmas variety special held together by a threadbare plot. Only an out-of-time figure like Murray could pull it off, even as he and Coppola case the musical as a self-referential streaming TV special context. The Frank Sinatras and Dean Martins and the Bob Hopes who got their own Christmas specials 50 years ago had to play it straight for the early era of television. We would today see those setpieces as hopelessly cheesy. But the absurdism, co-opted smartly, gives us this sort of silliness. Are we enjoying it because we’re in on the joke here (listen for the “sound stage in Queens” kicker from Clooney in this clip below)? Or are we enjoying it because Miley Cyrus and Paul Shaffer are legit musicians knocking out campy classics?
The baseline humor in it is that Murray can barely sing. But that lack of an ability to carry a tune amounts to more sardonic charm than Old Blue Eyes ever had. Murray has long needled the Ed Sullivan crowd, most hilariously with his long running “Nick the Lounge Singer” bit from his Saturday Night Live days. It was funny back then because crooners were still actually making it in show biz. It remains appealing now because, deep down, everyone can see the appeal of the era: being on a third gin martini, listening to a a grand piano backed by a horn section, snapping our fingers to a tenor in a tuxedo who’s buttering up another old Cole Porter tune.
Yeah, this is all for fun, what of it? Bill Murray gets to lead this unabashed nonsense because he’s indestructible, and impossible to dislike. His A Very Murray Christmas is just another random and charming cameo on the internet. The only way to lose sight of this is to try and translate it into anything sensible.