Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

Sofia Coppola's A Very Murray Christmas is a Netflix Christmas special available  until the end of this month and, then, I suppose, the production will be recycled seasonally for the rest of your life.  There's nothing new about this show -- in fact, the 57 minute production is just a hip version of a time-honored genre, the holiday variety special in which celebrities appear, bemused with embarrassment, and try to act warm and sentimental for the camera and the rubes in the sticks celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah.  The frisson offered by these shows is that the celebrities pressganged into the production are generally known for being hip, or ueber-ironic, or hyper-sexualized.  The idea is that if the Christmas spirit can afflict even Miley Cyrus or the gruff, curmudgeonly Bill Murray, then, perhaps, there is a wee bit of hope for you and me as well.  Coppola's innovation is that she combines the smarmy Christmas variety show paradigm with her trademark ennui and estrangement:  A Very Murray Christmas is a hybrid crossing Ed Sullivan with Coppola's own Lost in Translation.  The show is also somewhat like a Coen brothers' movie -- it invokes a genre that is so old, threadbare, and naïve that it seems to be fresh, edgy, and innovative as for instance, the Coen brothers' reimaging of the 30's chaingang movie (and musicals) in O Brother Where Art Thou or their reinvention of the traditional Western in films like True Grit and No Country for Old Men.  Bill Murray, of course, is the perfect protagonist for a project of this sort, exuding battered, but hip, charm.  Coppola's camera surveys hiMurray's ravaged features, his face that is like a scoured post-diluvian landscape, and, suitably enough, a close-shot of the star closes the film.  (Like her father, Sofia Coppola is also enamored with dissolves -- she uses this technique in a manner that I perceive to be a form of parody in the "Little Drummer Boy" sequence with Chris Rock, presumably, because the Black comedian, who appears in the film as a sop of inter-racial casting can't sing to save his soul.)

The special's concept may be simply stated:  Bill Murray is contracted to perform a Christmas show live from the famous Hotel Carlyle in New York City.  A blizzard cripples the city and the bridges and tunnels are closed.  No one can get to the hotel and, so, Murray is forced to perform to an empty room, a prospect that he mournfully abhors.  (Murray sings a number of tunes -- he has a gravely voice like Louis Armstrong, an instrument without pleasing timbre, but he sings in key and with excellent Sinatra-style phrasing; how this show affects you will be based in large-part on whether you like, or dislike, Murray's singing.)  After he shanghais Chris Rock to sing "Little Drummer Boy" with him, the power fails, the show can't go on, and Murray is left with the other habitués of the Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve.  With the chefs, waitresses and night-clerks, Murray and his accompanist, the indefatigable Paul Schaffer, improvise a Christmas variety show of sorts.  There are some mini-dramas -- a couple who has quarreled on the eve of their wedding (the power-failure has melted their cake) reconcile -- and everyone drinks too much for too long.  When Murray passes out, the film kicks into ring-ting-tingle song-and-dance show presented as the hero's dream in which a sleigh drawn by prancing show-girls conveys Miley Cyrus and George Clooney into a blindingly white winterwonderland set over which Murray presides as emcee.  A few more tunes ensue and the show ends the next morning, Christmas Day, with a hungover Bill Murray surveying the wintery and barren trees in Central Park from his skyscraper window.  The last third of the show, the TV-land Christmas show parodying similar extravaganzas now forty or more years old, is garish, kitschy, and overblown -- crowds of semi-nude showgirls with their asses cantilevered by their tiptoe stance in spike high-heels fondle Murray and moon over George Clooney and Schaffer from his glacial-white piano directs a whole orchestra -- it's reminiscent of the old Jackie Gleason show, a series that I recall with warmth and that was probably intended as parody as well.  This glitz contrasts effectively with both the relatively humble (and homely) barroom scenes and the show's low-key final scenes on the morning-after -- the film is modest in its aspirations and knows when (and how) to end on a "dying fall" that makes the most of Bill Murray's melancholy persona.  The sequence in the famous Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle features a torch song by Maya Rudolph, the French Indie rock group Phoenix playing a quirky Beach Boys song, some idiosyncratic carols, and, for its centerpiece, a startlingly effective and moving rendition of the Pogues' song, "Fairytale of New York" led by David Johansen.  This song was unfamiliar to me, but I could recognize it as an instant classic from the very first verse -- "It was Christmas, babe / In the drunk tank."  The four minute number perfectly embodies the whole project, the song poised spectacularly between crass sentimentality and ironic-hip repudiation of that very same sentimentality.  If you haven't heard this song, go to You-Tube and watch it right away.  I don't know where this song has been all my life but I am glad that I know it now.  (Also appearing in the special are Michael Cera, an excellent singer named Jenny Lewis, and Rashida Jones with cameos by Amy Poehler et. al.)

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