Before I watched "A Very Murray Christmas" Sunday night, I had a couple of whiskeys with an old friend. OK, I had five. ('Tis the season.) She and I drank cocktails in an open-air market as wealthy children in red caps picked out chocolates from vendors behind us. I had a cold. I imagined punching my racist uncle. I looked off into the distance and tried not to hear sleigh bells. Generally, I find the holidays unbearable — from the murderous scurrying for gifts to the instant emotional deflation of a Christmas midafternoon. My favorite tradition growing up was burning the tree on New Year's Day. I tend to get boozy and far off this time of year. Still, as I settled in to watch writer-director Sofia Coppola's new Netflix original special, starring Bill Murray and a slew of his showbiz friends, I gave myself over to the warm glow of icicle lights and liquor, and I knew that no matter how unfocused or beside the point — and unlike Christmas — it'd all be over in an hour.
Bill Murray, who plays himself, looks like he needs a drink as bad as anyone. Other than pianist and musical director Paul Shaffer of "The Late Show with David Letterman" fame (bald, sunglasses); his assistant Dmitri; and his over-supportive producers (Amy Poehler, Julie White), Bill is alone in his room at the Carlyle Hotel, where his live TV Christmas Eve special has been ruined by a massive blizzard that knocked out the power all over New York City. Without any audience or sufficiently famous guests, he sulks and sobs as he prepares to take the stage alone.
The special's opening number, Dean Martin's "Christmas Blues," sets the tone for most of the hour. While Dino was a more natural, cheerful drunk — excuse me, performer — Murray has no problem singing or wallowing in a caricature of himself for a good time. He performs the song in the dark to no one, his bowtie hanging limply from his collar. When he hears a knock at the door, he shouts, "I'm not here. I'm already dead. God hates me."
After an abortive attempt at "Jingle Bells," a small onstage breakdown — "I'm supposed to be laughing. I want to weep, OK? I'm weeping!" — and a dubious duet with Chris Rock, the weather deals a merciful last blow to the East Coast power grid, and Murray is released from his contract. Because he is a gentleman, he heads to Bemelmans Bar. There, he and Shaffer meet the rest of the cast: a quarreling engaged couple (Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman), a lounge singer (Maya Rudolph) and various California-looking friends of Coppola's (e.g. the French band Phoenix). Throughout the night, they trade stories and songs as they progress from champagne to shots.
Straightaway, a waitress (Jenny Lewis) approaches Bill with what appears to be cognac, and they launch into the classic, obligatory "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Bill could have played it straight for a more solid performance, but he's getting tight, and it's Christmas, so he ad-libs the male vocal to varying effect.
In the background lurks former New York Dolls front man (and the "Ghost of Christmas Past" from "Scrooged") David Johansen, who plays the bartender. I hiccupped when I saw him, thinking it was Benny from "Rumble Fish." I had to step outside.
The most memorable performance in "A Very Murray Christmas" is a group rendition of "Fairytale of New York" from Irish punk band the Pogues, led by Johansen, Murray and Lewis. Johansen sets the mood, but Bill gets the best lines, like "I got a feeling this year's for me and you" and "You took my dreams from me" — Happy Christmas! — that he delivers eyes closed in a full tuxedo, with blurry, empty bottles in the foreground. Maybe someone burps. It's wonderful! There are 15 minutes left after that, but for me it ends right there. Miley Cyrus shows up and quite skillfully sings nearly every Christmas song I never want to hear again. George Clooney makes martinis. It's all very beautiful, "for a sound stage in Queens," as Clooney puts it. But it's also an illusion, and it all just creeps me out. It's like the "brightly-packaged tinsel-covered Christmas blues" from the opening song. The purpose of a plotless, booze-sodden trudge through the holidays is to pacify, to soothe. That is also what television is for, and Christmas never feels as good as television.