Alfred Hitchcock famously said that “casting is characterisation”. The entire career of Bill Murray seems predicated on demonstrating he was right. Cast the cuddly, crimpled, deflated-looking Eeyore incarnate and you don’t get any old character: you get Bill Murray. Is he quietly misanthropic or quietly joyful? How on earth does he manage to be both?
The dichotomy between star actors and personality actors goes back almost as far as cinema itself. But Murray is next level: all baggage and no bones, a master of reversing the casting process so that it comes from inside.
Netflix’s yuletide-themed, musical one-hour special, A Very Murray Christmas relies, of course, on Bill Murray being Bill Murray. It is the most telling encapsulation so far of his style and the self-perpetuating manner of it. His charm is so effortless it feels lazy, and so lazy it feels somehow charming.
Directed by Sofia Coppola, who made one of the star’s best films in 2003’s Lost in Translation, the show fits into a tradition of festive TV spin-offs that have hit some highs (1965’s fabulous A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most beloved), but are mostly remembered for lows (like the notoriously onerous Star Wars Holiday Special). Suggesting A Very Murray Christmas is different because it doesn’t stem from a franchise would be misunderstanding that this is the franchise of Bill Murray.
The opening scene has the mopey celeb in a luxury NYC hotel room staring out the window into a night snowing sky, wearing an undone bowtie and fabric antlers. He is crooning about coming down with the Christmas blues and Paul Shaffer is there — Shaffer sticks around for almost all of it — tapping away on the piano.
The first words Murray delivers don’t exactly scale back the sad sack routine: “I’m not here, I’m already dead”. The proceedings begin in show-within-a-show mode, with Murray reluctant to host a Christmas gig downstairs in the hotel. He storms off, declaring it a disaster and grumbling that he doesn’t have any celebrities.
Ta-da: Chris Rock appears at the door and within seconds they’re singing “Do you see what I see…” Like all the actors who cameo — including Michael Cera, Amy Poehler and Jason Schwartzman — Rock is an affable presence but can’t really be funny. Murray’s plaintive deadpan sets the tempo and sucks up all the comedy juice.
There’s not much in the way of plot but the appeal is anything but story-based. There’s liberal doses of random singing and chit-chat coming and going around Murray, whose temperament suggests a Scrooge-esque karaoke MC who rarely hands over the microphone.
A Very Murray Christmas is slight, even trifling, but doesn’t outstay its welcome. The running time clocks in at less than an hour; with about 15 minutes to go Coppola jettisons the show-within-a-within format and embraces straight-up show. The switch is marked by an overhead image of Murray lying on a rotating white piano.
This is where Coppola et al really gets into the swing of things. There’s a gorgeously designed set — like a small Busby Berkeley stage — and the presence of martini-making George Clooney and carol singing Miley Cyrus.
The wider industry tends to view Netflix’s programming decisions with suspicion: what are they up to next? What turf are they shouldering into? A Very Murray Christmas isn’t exactly binge watch material. It feels like an old-style US network special one encounters by channel surfing –something hosted by Bing Crosby or Judy Garland.
Murray’s distinct disposition wipes away the smile that might otherwise have been stamped across the host’s face, perhaps even turning the show into a parody. In this case at least, casting is indeed characterisation: not only for a person but an entire production.
It is far too late in the game for Murray to ever break free and reveal the thespian within. He tried it playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in 2012’s so-so drama Hyde Park on Hudson but it felt like a losing battle; one man versus the meme that has become his entire oeuvre. While some actors expend great effort avoiding stereotype, he has embraced his with unfettered — if characteristically laid-back — enthusiasm.