For Ben York Jones, it’s all about character. As a screenwriter, his feature writing credits include the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, Breathe In and the forthcoming WWII drama Ashes in the Snow. As an actor he can be seen in the Emmy- and Cannes Lion-winning web series The Beauty Inside, the 2010 Sundance Competition film Douchebag, and the short film Safety. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he is picking cat hair off one of his many plain black T-shirts. (Photo by Tiffany Roohani)
OK, look, there’s nothing to be gained by complaining about A Very Murray Christmas except perhaps a reputation for being a Scrooge. It would be like criticizing home movies of your friend’s family singing Christmas carols. Why pick it apart? There’s clearly a lot heart on screen and I love that, but at the same time it’s not especially inspired or engrossing as a piece of entertainment. It’s people (who mostly aren’t known for their pipes) singing in a living room.
When I first heard this special was brewing, I imagined something akin to SNL’s 40th anniversary special drenched in eggnog. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular but with the rejuvenating acidity of Bill Murray to cut through the sugar. Glorious Christmas Extravagance! In reality, A Very Murray Christmas is contained, a micro-budge indie yuletide offering with a noncommittal plot and little in the way of visual intrigue. The last component is a result of the choice to shoot the special in the small corners of the Carlyle Hotel. Though the Carlyle was no doubt chosen for its charm and history, its many shades of dark brown don’t make it the most compellingly cinematic of locations. Considering the top-notch lineup of talent, setting the special here is a little like touring the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade through the back alleys of Midtown instead of its grand Sixth Avenue route.
So much of my disappointment over A Very Murray Christmas admittedly stems from my own expectations. I’d watch Bill Murray do just about anything, so a Bill Murray Christmas special directed by Sofia Coppola? I’m in, times a thousand. On paper, it meets expectations: celebrities sing and it’s funny at times, and there is some amount of (very subdued) merriment, but the problem is I never got that feeling. The feeling you get when the Grinch sees the error of his ways. Or when George Bailey runs down the street yelling “Merry Christmas!” Or when Kevin McCallister dashes from the church to his house in Home Alone. That feeling is why we watch Christmas movies and specials. But here, the catharsis just never came. Less than a cohesive “special,” A Very Murray Christmas kind of feels like “content.” There’s not much going on here beyond Bill Murray putting on a tux and singing with other familiar faces, but maybe there doesn’t need to be. Maybe my heart is a piece of coal. I get the results on Thursday.
There are, however, attempts made to set up that feeling. An arc is established (with the help of some funny moments from Amy Poehler), but never rounded out. Briefly, the unfulfilled set-up is this: Bill Murray, assuming a persona akin to Rushmore’s Herman Blume, is over it all. He has to go on stage and perform, but none of his famous friends have shown up due to a snowstorm (or could it be they just don’t like him?). This makes Bill depressed and anxious and prone to mild tantrums. But most of all, like Mr. Blume, it’s safe to say this version of Bill is just “a little bit lonely these days.” It’s a decent, if familiar, set-up, but it ultimately doesn’t take us to any new conclusions. And the musical acts (some really great, some middling) step up to the mic like customers at a deli counter. (“Next…”) Where’s the magic?! Paul Shaffer accompanies the performers and is awesome as ever, but under the circumstances the acoustics of the piano are sonically impotent when Phoenix plugs in and actually breathes some life into proceedings.
But, a saving grace: the best is saved for last. In the final 10 to 15 minutes, having passed out (the amount of alcoholic consumption throughout is really fantastic – perhaps a drinking game should be devised?), Murray slips into a dream-like state. And for the second time, things come to life. Glorious Christmas Extravagance ensues, with dancing girls on a sound stage with Paul at a white piano, falling snow, and a disheveled, Santa-caped Murray. This is what I had hoped for the whole time! The closest we come to that feeling is Miley Cyrus’ rendition of “Silent Night.” It’s warm and fuzzy, and it’s just what the doctor ordered. This is the number you stop and watch. Then a funky beat drops in. Bass and keys. Bill wanders through a sound-stage forest in his Santa cap, mumble-singing as if he were in a hallucinogenic dream. George Clooney pops out to sing a chorus, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” then retreats behind the trees. It’s a trip, but when it’s over, we wonder why the first 45 minutes weren’t a little more lively like the last 15.
I have my issues with it, but so what? At the end of the day, A Very Murray Christmas isn’t meant to be scrutinized. (I’m just so used to dismantling and reconstructing that I can’ help it!) It’s the holidays, and I sincerely hope yours are wonderful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Nick Offerman drinking whiskey by a fire for 45 minutes. In terms of calibrating expectations, I’d say they’re already half-met on that one.