Sunday, December 6, 2015

Murray and Bright

Sunday was catch-up with Christmas day.

Usually, the traditions come down hard on the ole Boody household right after Thanksgiving,
beginning with 4 am Black Friday coffee and mall walking, followed immediately with lights and ornament hanging. But this year we've been a little preoccupied with the wedding right around the corner -- on December 20th -- so our timeline has taken a bit of a backseat. But today it arrived, front and center, with a trip to our normal, reliable Fraser Fur pusher at Pine Hill Farms out in Tarrant, AL. I've liked the place since we first went out there in 2010; they allow pale, depleted urbanites like me to indulge their inner-rural manhood and cut down a tree with their bare hands, then dope you up on cider and agro-entertainment like live reindeer until your blood runs red and green.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to put up the tree once we got home, nor was I able to be at home at all once we got back. First thing in the morning I have to drive with my dad out to a volunteer event an hour down the road, and rather than waking up and heading out to the folks' house before God is even up, I decided to just stay with them for the night, so once again, Christmas had to be put on hold. But even though I couldn't be with Jessica on what was supposed to be our first night of Yule Tide merriment, the parentals did a good job of making me feel...well, at home. The tree was up, complete with all the decor my family has collected over the years; I think there may even still be a few ornaments hanging from my parents' first Christmas together. After we threw a few logs on the fire and got it going, my dad and I settled in for an activity that can bring contention between us: finding a movie on Netflix.

When my dad is up for a movie, I like to seize the chance to introduce him to a fine assortment of world cinema. He usually thinks I'm being pretentious when I suggest a flick that's smart, deft and honest, and, just to irk me, intentionally throws a title back my way that is like a 90 minute cultural deprivation tank. 


Me: "Why don't we watch 'Nightcrawler'? Gyllenhall is a beast in this one!"

Dad: "Hey, here's 'Johnson Family Vacation'!"

Miraculously, for the first time in a while, we settled on one almost immediately. We decided to watch the new Bill Murray Christmas Special.

"A Very Murray Christmas" is a throwback to the Holiday specials of the 1960s, when the variety show was King for the same reason Reality TV is big now: they were cheap, required almost no writing, and all you needed was a hook -- ideally a celebrity and a bunch of his celebrity friends, putting their vices on hold for a night of family friendly frolic. The show certainly had a lot of the tongue-and-cheek corn of an old Holiday special, but it also had the modern, ironic, sweet touch of its titular saint, Bill Murray, who is always worth watching. He has become a kind of ubiquitous fun uncle that my generation has shared since "Ghostbusters". No matter the material, it's just impossible not to like the guy. Without him at the helm, this hour long special would've stayed down the first time it fell, but Uncle Bill kept picking it back up.

And it did fall. Many, many times.

There were a few scattered gags and fun bits, but from pretty much the first few minutes in, as Bill croons out the Christmas blues against a snowy city backdrop, I realized there was something off -- out of tune. No, it wasn't Paul Schaeffer's piano (he sounds great, of course!), but, rather, I think the whole thing was misdirected. I found out that Sophia Coppola was behind the camera, which makes sense to me, because most of the show has the feeling of those early scenes in "Lost in Translation" when Scarlett Johanssen is wondering around Tokyo. There is an aimless, morose tone throughout, and while it fits with the loose narrative of Bill Murray being sad that no one has come to a taping of his Christmas special, the melancholy rarely finds any joy to tip the scale. I understand what they were going for: a Christmas special for adults, and the dropping of a few random, unnecessary F-bombs no doubt helped hammer this home for me. But, still, in almost every scene, there seems to be a disconnect between the director and performers; no one knows what the other is doing, and at the end of each number, everyone seems to look up and say, frowning, "What now?"

But I can't say that Sophia totally missed the boat with her direction. Each number is staged well and it looks pretty good, too. The show is full of muted, jazzy colors -- like the night club in "Eyes Wide Shut -- and I like the atmosphere of a bunch of hotel strangers stranded together during a Christmas Eve blizzard. I just think that what could have made the whole thing actually work -- what would have solved almost every awkward problem -- is a live studio audience. Without the sounds of applause or laughter, or the constant engagement of Bill Murray with an audience like in the Nick the Lounge Singer days, each moment of would-be Christmas joy is sadly waisted, and the entertainers are just there for each other. And because the whole show ends in a dream sequence with no resolution to the plot that is set up, albeit loosely, I'm not sure all their efforts ever cheer anyone up.

In any case, here are a few ebbs and flows:

Bill Murray sings. Fortunately, Bill Murray is not a singer. If he was, then we would not know who he is today. Nevertheless, it's good to see him spin out a diddy every now-and-again, and it's hard to notice how lackluster someone is when they're accompanied by Paul Shaffer.

Amy Poehler and Michael Cera. The second these guys appeared on screen I knew what the show was going to be: a keep em' coming cameo-fest of big comedy talents. Unfortunately, no big laughs, and Uncle Bill sort of had this look on his face that said: "I thought you guys were supposed to be funny."

Chris Rock. Far and away the funniest part of the show -- not so much their rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy", but when Bill tells Chris: "You must be on my show. You can rap!"

Jenny Lewis. One of my favorite singers right now, Jenny Lewis's "Rabbit Fur Coat" is one of the best CD's I ever bought for a dollar. I thought it was a great choice to have her on the show, and even though her "Baby, It's Cold Outside" duet with Murray cringed me into leaving the room (remember, I was watching with my dad), she came back strong with her inclusion with the rest of the cast in "Fairytale of New York".

Holy crap, it's David Johansen! You may remember him as the "Hot, Hot, Hot" guy (or Buster
Poindexter), but I'll always think of him as the Cabbie Ghost of Christmas Past from the Murray classic "Scrooged". He was also the frontman for the glam group The New York Dolls, but quit punkin' it up in the early 80s to pursue an acting career. I'm glad to see him back to his old tricks in this Special, and he does pretty good, too.

Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home). Great song, and Maya Rudolph does a good job with it, but I am very confused here. Didn't Paul Shaffer perform this song live with its original singer, Darlene Love, like 23 years in a row on David Letterman? It was always a showstopper, and it utterly baffles me that they couldn't get her for this. With Shaffer such an integral part of the production, it's a bright blinking error.

"I Saw the Light". Oh, yes, we all remember that great Todd Rundgren Christmas classic.

Miley Cyrus. I saw the beginning of this medley, but then my dog, Anna, who I brought with me for the night, peed in the dining room, so I missed the rest. But I'm sure cleaning up after her was infinitely more entertaining.

I do like it that Netflix is experimenting with its model right now, putting out one-off shows like "A Very Murray Christmas" to both honor TV history while, at the same time, killing its future. And even during the show's lowest points, I felt elated with a pioneer spirit. We are witnessing a new entertainment landscape, one where new talent can break in and veterans like Bill Murray can try out something new. I see plenty of Dan Akroyd Halloween UFO Specials in the future.

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