Bill Murray’s Living Nativity

Aarik Danielsen

Each Christmas, scores of new movies vie to become part of the greater holiday fabric. Lifetime, Hallmark, and similar networks launched 70 new Christmas films into the atmosphere this year alone. Only a select few stick around season after season; the newest offering to join our household canon is 2015’s A Very Murray Christmas.

Directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), the hour-long experience is as offbeat and slyly charming as its central figure, Bill Murray. Certainly, A Very Murray Christmas proves far more interested in experience than exposition—more than anything, this is a mood piece. Coppola doesn’t present the holidays in bright reds and deep greens; her Christmas emphasizes the blues under amber lights.

What plot there is goes like this: a blizzard cripples New York City and cuts the power—star and otherwise—to Murray’s holiday television special. Trying to salvage something of his Christmas Eve, he exchanges merriment with A-listers playing themselves (Chris Rock) and singular personalities (such as rockers Jenny Lewis and David Johansen) in relatively random roles. As this cast of genuine characters gathers for the night, the result is something too peculiar to be categorized, too warm—with the glow of brandy and burgeoning friendship—to be resisted.

Squint hard enough and A Very Murray Christmas begins to resemble a living nativity scene diffused across a hotel bar. We meet a betrothed couple who hits a bump on the way to happily ever after (Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones). A blue-collar band (indie-rockers Phoenix) bears witness to the night’s proceedings and even offers up a song. Who needs an entire heavenly chorus when you have Maya Rudolph, the queen of angel singers, crooning the Darlene Love classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”? And if we wish to extend the analogy to its very borders, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus behave something like magi, arriving with surprising and foreign gifts.

On paper, this ragtag group of people should have very little to do with one another. Yet they find comfort and something like community, with Murray serving as the star hovering over the place where it happens. He’s the guiding light, the miracle magnet. As they eat, drink, and are merry, this one-night-only family revels in the sort of joy the world too easily misses.

Squint hard enough and A Very Murray Christmas begins to resemble a living nativity scene diffused across a hotel bar.

The most enduring Christmas movies recognize that life never quite turns out the way you planned; for all your best intentions, your most meaningful Christmas is the one which travels seriously off course. We see this as George Bailey learns his lessons in It’s A Wonderful Life; we even find a version of it as Will Ferrell’s Buddy builds a bridge between worlds in Elf. A Very Murray Christmas lives elegantly within this tension and tradition. No slick network suit—especially not the one Murray played in his previous Christmas vehicle, 1988’s Scrooged—would dream up a holiday special like this one. Yet this happy accident satisfies on a soul level.

These movies are mockingbird songs, replicating the eternal message of Christmas. They remind us that Christmas is not for the hardest workers or those who have it all together. Those who truly feel their need for Christmas are the lonely hearts, the ones who know bad luck and see the odds stacked high against them. These are the characters Murray assembles; these are the characters he’s always embodied, wounded souls with hangdog faces who keep their wits about them like shields protecting their broken hearts.

If these characters—and those of us who live among their number—keep waiting for the usual plot twists, disappointment awaits. If we wait for salvation to come through an avenging action hero, a massive windfall, or an awakening of the liberator who lies within, our stories will begin and end on paper. The limits of our imaginations will supply the boundaries for our downfall.

Our stories never really stick to the plot points we conceive. Rather, life resembles an Advent calendar with suffering and surprise, quiet splendor and unlikely mercies behind every fold. If you’re willing to find something beautiful where you least expect it, Christmas has both immanent and infinite gifts to offer you. The story of our salvation sounds too foolish to ever ask or dream for; then again, God promises that his foolishness will shame the ways of the wise. He brings cosmic redemption through a baby boy; this prince of heaven’s royal entrance is attended by a few shepherds and barnyard animals. Yet it is as true and glorious as can be. Present at creation, Jesus interrupts the very world he made to unite everything that’s come unraveled.

Whether we accept the truth or not, our lives—and all our Christmases—resemble this nativity scene more than a Norman Rockwell conception. We take our place with the rabble, living among the mess and muck of earth, finding our way forward together as we come to adore this humble king. If we’re willing to see ourselves in this story, we’ll find a message worth repeating and rehearsing every year—whether we join the company of Bill Murray and his cohort or trace the stories of the gospel writers. If we will be found within the Christmas scene God sets, then its miracles—as Murray’s Frank Cross says in Scrooged—can happen to us over and over again.

Topics: TV