Sofia Coppola’s “A Very Murray Christmas” (2015)

The collapse of the prestige specialty sector in American studio filmmaking during the late 2000’s left several prominent filmmakers stranded on desert islands surrounded by a sea of big-budget mediocrity.  Those who had thrived during this period, like director Sofia Coppola, found difficulty jumping to the onslaught of play-it-safe sequels and compound franchises that followed– their audience seemingly having disappeared overnight.  Those who had fueled the runaway box office success of 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION failed to turn out for Coppola’s similarly-themed 2010 effort, SOMEWHERE, prompting an extended foray into commercials and music videos.  It was quickly becoming apparent that there was no longer a demand for the kind of patiently observed, delicately minimalistic chamber dramas Coppola had made her name from, and even her return to features in 2013’s THE BLING RING evidenced a distinct (yet, not total) pivot towards a mainstream audience.  Meanwhile, ascendant digital services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon were, via their original programming initiatives, asserting themselves as The New World for our forsaken auteurs– a veritable promised land where cinematic pilgrims could stake out their artistic freedom, far from the oppressive hand of the studio system.

For Netflix in particular, their rapid ascent to the top of the digital media heap was thanks in no small part to their sophisticated algorithms that chewed raw user data into easily-digestible chunks of trend analysis.  Their breakthrough foray into original content, HOUSE OF CARDS, infamously came together by way of using subscriber viewing data and finding a significant overlap between users who liked David Fincher’s films and Kevin Spacey’s performances.  Whereas the conventional model of packaging looked to past successes as a solid (if not entirely reliable) indicator of future return, Netflix’s use of up-to-the-second statistics allowed them to pinpoint with much greater accuracy the degree of creative alchemy they could achieve with any given pairing of talent.  It might seem like an admittedly cynical business model– after all, some of the greatest films ever made were bold gambles based off only a gut feeling– but with a programming slate that includes HOUSE OF CARDS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, BEASTS OF NO NATION, and MAKING OF A MURDERER, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t lead to some groundbreaking new entertainment.  At just 56 minutes long, Netflix’s 2015 holiday special, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, is a little too scant to be called a feature, and a little too long to be called a short, but it is undoubtedly one of their more interesting risks to date.  

Despite Bill Murray’s widespread cult of internet fandom, a conventional studio or network might view the prospect of an old-fashioned holiday variety special directed by a polarizing arthouse auteur with a borderline-paralyzing trepidation.  But thanks to its treasure trove of user data and a decadently off-kilter script written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer, Netflix would find the courage to forge ahead with a quirky one-off holiday special designed for the meme generation.  The story of A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is as scant as its running time, featuring Murray as a thinly-fictionalized version of himself about to reluctantly perform a poorly-planned cabaret special when a major blizzard suddenly hits, trapping him inside the cavernous halls of New York City’s Hotel Carlyle on Christmas Eve.  Murray gamely plays the boozy ham we all would expect him to be, lampooning the “Sad Murray” archetype that propelled his career resurgence in the arthouse sector.  Indeed, his depression over his isolation in the hotel and entrapment in a gig he hates plays like a loose sequel to LOST IN TRANSLATION, finding his Bob Harris character hitting rock bottom a decade later.

After a power outage abruptly cancels the show, Murray starts wandering the hotel; striking up conversations with the hotel staff and guzzling whiskey until he passes out and hallucinates the glitzy star-studded holiday musical he should have hosted.  The plot serves as a loose framework for Coppola and Murray to stage various vignettes that frame a series of musical performances– some, refreshingly, by singers who aren’t even terribly all that good.  Coppola uses a wide mix of music, ranging from time-honored Christmas staples to unconventional tracks that have nothing do with the holidays, like Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light”.  In the tradition of star-studded holiday specials past, the premise also serves as a convenient excuse for Coppola and company to parade several famous faces throughout, some playing fictional characters, while others, like Murray, send up their own celebrity images as “themselves”.  Paul Schaffer is one of these, proving himself the hardest working person in the film as he cheerfully accompanies every musical number on his trusty piano.  Chris Rock also plays himself to hilarious effect, as do George Clooney and Miley Cyrus in Murray’s Busby Berkley-inspired dream sequence (Clooney’s goofy backup vocals in a rendition of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” are a particular highlight).  The roster of fictional characters boasts the likes of Michael Cera as Jackie, a sleazebag agent aggressively pursuing Murray despite his infamous refusal to take on representation; Amy Poehler as Liz, the cabaret’s chipper co-producer; Rashida Jones and MARIE ANTOINETTE’s Jason Schwartzman as a glum pair of lovebirds whose wedding day is ruined by the big blizzard; Maya Rudolph as a Diana Ross-style lounge singer; and finally Coppola’s own husband Thomas Mars leading his Phoenix bandmates as the hotel’s crew of cooks.  

A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS looks to continue the migration that Coppola began with THE BLING RING towards digital acquisition for her long-form work, calling upon cinematographer John Tanzer to create an aesthetic that spit-polishes her signature style.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the old-fashioned “Hollywood musical dream sequence”, realized with sweeping crane moves and bright, colored lights that wash over the elaborate Busby Berkeley-style choreography.  This sequence is effectively jarring when it arrives– a proper realization of the perfect “star-studded holiday musical” that contrasts with the dim, moody look of the film’s Hotel Carlyle setting.  For these waking narrative moments, which make up the bulk of the running time, Coppola returns to her familiar observational aesthetic.  Overall, the visual presentation of A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS lacks the stylistic flourish of Coppola’s previous work, but it is nonetheless conveys a handsome image and unassuming tone.

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Just as he did in LOST IN TRANSLATION, Murray proves an inspiring and effective canvas upon which Coppola can paint her musings about the ennui of celebrity.  Like SOMEWHERE or LOST IN TRANSLATION, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is structured as a behind-the-scenes portrait of show business as experienced by a melancholy and lonely soul lost within it.  In-jokes and winking references to the celebrity lifestyle are part of this conceit, albeit Coppola delivers them with much more of a comical flair here than in her previous work.  The plot device of entrapping Murray with the confines of the Hotel Carlyle also bears Coppola’s signature, the latest iteration of a recurring trope that stages an emotionally-isolated character against the backdrop of a singular space.  Coppola’s thematic fascinations translate well to the digital streaming format, with the shorter runtime boasting the added benefit of her concise narrative focus hampering her tendency to indulge in the kind of meandering, thinly-sketched storylines that have become a flashpoint for her critics.  

Coppola’s high-profile reunion with Murray mostly pays off, having created an off-kilter musical romp that is bound to be a hipster holiday favorite.  Despite mixed reviews following its December 2015 release on Netflix, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS would find enough regard to earn a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.  Its thinly-sketched narrative, while arguably not very satisfying to discerning cinephiles, oddly enough becomes an asset in what will most likely become its most routine exhibition context: as a background distraction at ugly Christmas sweater parties.

A Very Murray Christmas

As of this writing, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is Coppola’s most recent completed work.  She’s set to direct her next feature next year– a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 western thriller THE BEGUILED, which will undoubtedly serve as an interesting opportunity for Coppola to apply her signature aesthetic to not just a period piece set during the Civil War, but to a genre that she’s never touched before.  In the 18 years that have transpired since her first short film (1998’s LICK THE STAR), Coppola has built up an impressive body of work that stands totally apart from the monumental legacy of her father– a feat made all the more impressive considering the endless parade of nepotism charges leveled against her by critics since day one.  She’s proven herself a supremely gifted director whose strength lies in the arthouse realm, especially in subject matter that assumes a feminine, introspective worldview.  Early works like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) and LOST IN TRANSLATION have already grown into esteemed classics, possessing an ethereal essence and mystique that rewards repeat viewings.  

Despite her clearly-defined aesthetic, Coppola has also shown she can move with the times, as evidenced by her pivot to commercials, mainstream-friendly long-form narrative and experiments in digital storytelling in response to the decline of the very prestige arthouse sector that made her early works possible.   Her trailblazing career as a female director has been inspiring to countless women aspiring to make their own films, to be sure, but to confine her accomplishments to the context of her gender does her a severe disservice.  In a cinematic landscape increasingly besieged by the smog of “connected universes” and flashy IP, Coppola’s films are a breath of fresh air– a reminder of film’s potential for profound emotional resonance in even the smallest of moments.  Coppola is only now just beginning to enter the years that constitute “middle-age”, meaning the multitude of works these essays have explored only constitute half of a celebrated filmography. It might be too early to talk about her “legacy” in concrete terms, but if the second half of her career is as striking as the first, then she won’t have just effectively carried the “Coppola” mantle into the twenty-first century; she’ll have redefined it on her own terms.

A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is currently available via Netflix streaming.

Credits:

Executive Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Roman Coppola, Bill Murray

Produced by: Lilly Burns

Written by: Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray & Mitch Glazer

Director of Photography: John Tanzer

Production Designer: Anne Ross

Editor: Sarah Flack