To call “A Very Murray Christmas” trifling is not necessarily an insult. There are probably quite a few people who’ve wondered what it would be like to spend an evening in a bar with Bill Murray, basking in the actor’s off-kilter sensibilities and listening to him and a few famous friends sing karaoke. True, there is a self-congratulatory air to the entire project, but at scarcely an hour, the special is so slender and slight that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. If the weather outside is frightful (or even if it’s tolerable), there are worse ways to spend a holiday-season hour than with Murray and his glamorous chums.
Viewers old enough to remember Nick, the hilariously jaded lounge singer Murray played in the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” will only see brief flashes of that kind of sarcastic bite in “A Very Murray Christmas.” The project is directed by Sofia Coppola — her brother, Roman, helped out — and on and off screen, there are other familiar names from the Coppola-Murray personal and professional universe: Sofia and Roman’s cousin Jason Schwartzman pops up; Coppola’s husband’s band, Phoenix, makes an appearance; and one of the writers is Mitch Glazer, who penned “Rock the Kasbah,” a recent Murray film. When the special drags a bit, it feels as if Netflix, the anti-Scrooge of this free-spending TV era, has paid Murray and Coppola to film a champagne-infused holiday shindig with their friends. Still, “A Very Murray Christmas” has a sweetness to it that keeps it from lapsing fully into self-indulgence.
At its best, the proceedings keep alive the spirit of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road pictures, in which thin reasons were created for personable performers to hang out with each other. The wispy premise here is that Murray is doing a cabaret set in the Carlyle Hotel, a performance that is also supposed to go out as a live TV broadcast. The weather interferes with that plan, but it supplies an excuse for Amy Poehler and Julie White to turn up as stressed-out producers, for Chris Rock and Maya Rudolph to sing a song or two, for Rashida Jones to play a jilted bride, and for singer Jenny Lewis to play a cocktail waitress with an exceptional voice. Murray, in expansive Crosby mode, doesn’t quite have a Hope to riff off, but Paul Shaffer provides adept musical accompaniment throughout, and the star gets to vamp with George Clooney and Miley Cyrus near the end of the hour.
“I’m so alone,” Murray groans at one point, and there are a few faint echoes of the character he played in “Lost in Translation” — another man trapped in a hotel during a period of existential doubt who turns to music for solace. But most of the time, the point of “A Very Murray Christmas” is to act as a delivery system for Murray’s multi-layered goofball charm. The attraction of Murray’s vocal performances, as was the case with the great Hoagy Carmichael, doesn’t have much to do with perfect technique. Rather the actor brings a unique blend of spontaneity, sadness and screwball optimism to his characters, and those qualities infuse his singing with a depth of feeling that bigger and better belters often can’t supply.
But don’t expect this artisanal bon-bon to supply a full meal. “A Very Murray Christmas” is a slender diversion meant to be nibbled while wrapping presents or sampling eggnog — or, perhaps, drinking something stronger.