Hearing that Netflix has an all-new Bill Murray Christmas special is one thing. Why shouldn't Murray front an all-star gathering, like, say, Bing Crosby and Stephen Colbert before him?
Actually seeing it is another. Murray isn't just a sometime presence in this holiday hour that nods to, and then winks at, the televised yule fabrications of yore.
He's everywhere, a laconically dominant presence amid a cast that includes celebrated folk from George Clooney to Amy Poehler to Chris Rock to Miley Cyrus to the rock band Phoenix.
And more than mid period Bill Murray, comic actor and killer talk show guest, or more recent Bill Murray, poster child for acute big-screen melancholy, he's Bill Murray, lounge singer, like a real-life version of Nick, his 1970s Saturday Night Live character who invented lyrics to the Star Wars theme.
A Very Murray Christmas, though, presents Murray as more or less himself, a famous person with famous friends who somehow got talked into doing a live musical Christmas Eve special by chirpy producers played by Poehler and Julie White.
He isn't all that happy about it. But any viewer who likes Murray's act — extreme self-effacement punctuated by deadpan brilliance; disaffection duking it out with a desire for sincerity — will be very happy with this program indeed. It's not the last word on the holiday season, but for a certain mood, it's just the right word.
So that viewers know what they're getting into, the show opens with Murray and his piano player, Paul Shaffer (who was also Nick's piano player back in the day), doing a doleful, but relatively straight-faced Christmas Blues in his suite at New York's Carlyle Hotel.
"God hates me," Murray laments, as a snowstorm comes in and keeps his planned show guests away.
So he's a dislocated man trapped in a fancy hotel, not unlike the character he played in Lost in Translation. That's no coincidence: That film's director, Sofia Coppola, co-wrote (with Murray) and directed Very Murray. (Mitch Glazer, who worked with Murray on Scrooged, was the other writer.)
But satellite time has been paid for and so the show must go on, which it does, sort of.
Various plot machinations bring on Michael Cera as a would-be agent, Phoenix (the French band that features Coppola's husband Thomas Mars) performing a new, so-so pop Christmas tune ("How about you fellas play something that nobody knows?" Murray says to them), and Rashida Jones as a troubled bride weeping at her ruined wedding.
"You look like you'd like to have your photograph taken with me," Murray tells her. "I've noticed that that really seems to cheer people up a lot when they do that. They get big smiles."
Everybody but Cera sings, even Clooney, who shows up with Cyrus in an elaborately produced dream sequence. Especially effective are Maya Rudolph belting out Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Cyrus singing Silent Night in a red mini Santa dress on a white piano and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) trading lines with Murray on Baby, It's Cold Outside. The thing that classic duet has lacked, it turns out, is frostbite references from the male voice.
Murray himself is an engaging musical presence, even over so many songs. He's no Harry Connick Jr., but he can mostly carry a tune and he can definitely carry the camera's interest.
There isn't much to this special except for some great songs and deft piano playing, a handful of sharp laughs, and all that Bill Murray cultural resonance, which really has become its own kind of force field. And that, it turns out, is plenty.
Will the family gather round each December to watch A Very Murray Christmas, as with A Charlie Brown Christmas or A Christmas Story or even Scrooged? Maybe not.
But later on at night, you and your uncle with the authority problem and your sarcasm-obsessed teenage daughter can have a high time chuckling at Murray and Rock dueting on Do You Hear What I Hear? Rock rasps, Murray beams at him, and in that glowing look is a parody of every false, forced celebrity pairing you've ever seen. Merry Christmas, everyone!