An obvious outlier in Sofia Coppola’s career, A Very Murray Christmas is her shortest (just under an hour) and simplest work. An unserious holiday special caught somewhere between experimental TV and indie trifle – a neither here nor there object appropriately debuted on Netflix, because where else would it fit? – the film finds Bill Murray playing a version of himself. Trapped in the Carlyle hotel in New York City during a Christmas Eve blizzard, he reluctantly trudges downstairs for a live broadcast set up by some barely competent producers. They want him to sing a few carols and grin out at a nonexistent audience. None of the guests have made it through the storm, though one glimpse at the place cards shows that the invites (Pope Francis?) involved more than a little bit of wishful thinking. Murray doesn’t want to go through with it, and gets his wish when the power conks out. This leaves the man free to hang out with Paul Shaffer and wander the hotel. That’s it. Told you it was simple.
Coppola, from a script she co-wrote with Murray and Mitch Glazer (Magic City), makes this her slightest, lightest portrait of loneliness and alienation. It helps that she has both sides of Murray, the public figure, to play with. Here he’s the sad sack clown (the side she used perfectly in her Lost in Translation a dozen years ago) and the unpredictable aloof feel-good meme. He’s almost, but not quite, enjoying himself as he quips and sings songs with people he meets in the hotel – wait staff, chefs, a bride and groom – cheering up their dreary holiday eve with a sparkling low-key charm and cozy impromptu party atmosphere. The joke is that the usual TV Christmas special is artificial connection, a faux-coziness between the stars du jour and the lonely saps at home. But what Murray does when the power goes off, and the few guests huddled in the hotel bar have to stay close for warmth, eat food before it goes bad, and enjoy a few songs together, is real holiday connection between strangers.
Of course, the even bigger joke is that, for all the quiet, hipper-than-the-usual-holiday-variety-show atmosphere, it’s totally a Christmas special. Coppola has smartly cast it with a parade of guests stars playing it small and natural, some in funny cameos as themselves, others playing characters like dotty producers, smarmy agents, sweet assistants, random hotel employees, and the like. (I’d list off a few of the familiar faces, but they’re to a person such lovely surprises and delightful charmers I’d hate to spoil them for you.) There are also plenty of musical numbers, from old standards – “Jingle Bells,” “Let it Snow” – and classic carols – “Silent Night” – to a rousing and moving group sing-along to The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” The performances are full with eccentric vocals and authentic communal spirit. Cinematographer John Tanzer’s warm photography captures a fireplace glow, and Coppola blocks the performers like she’s finding a close moment in a cozy party. She concludes the film with a few gently silly hallucinated production numbers, then a pleasant breakfast, and one last song. It’s nice.
The project exudes offbeat warmth, curled up with the deep melancholy that can arise when the holidays don’t go as you’d hoped, but content with the excuse to find human connections in unexpected places. The result is the emotional equivalent of the Yule Log video, steady and comforting with only minor variations on its theme throughout. (It’s not too far removed from A Charlie Brown Christmas in affect.) You could throw it on your streaming device and let the soft sounds wash over you for the hour. But it’s also such a lovely bit of filmmaking, simple and yet evocative, a sustained mood piece of people isolated on Christmas slowly building a fleeting sense of holiday community, a fine unassuming bit of whimsy from one of our finest filmmakers. It’s Yuletide magic in a minor key.