Anyone who is privy to Sofia Coppola’s filmography will know that she is obsessed with ennui and people in a state of flux—adoring the exploring of the miniscule details in one’s life. She’s a filmmaker who favours mood and feeling over constantly moving narrative. In what is arguably her most well-known and celebrated film, Lost in Translation, Coppola crafts something which she has described as a self-indulgent mood piece. It’s about two lost souls in a state of flux who just happen to be brought together by chance. There’s no plot beats driving the story forward at every turn. Coppola largely creates films which are often about character’s discovering something about their own internal world and overcoming said flux. On the Rocks definitely overlaps with this at points. It’s notably Coppola’s third collaboration with Bill Murray after Lost in Translation and the 2015 Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas. There’s a real expectation for that magic to be captured once again.
We follow Laura (Rashida Jones), a writer and mother of two young daughters who suspects that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair with his cheery and confident co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Laura is paid a visit by her chauvinistic playboy father Felix (Bill Murray), a retired and extremely wealthy art dealer. As the womaniser Felix is, he brings Laura along to trail Dean to catch him in act, and father-daughter bonding with a beautiful New York City backdrop ensues.
Immediately what’s noticeable is that On the Rocks is driven by a central idea and plot which brings our characters together and drives the story forward at all times. There’s a conflict that isn’t just internal. Coppola delivers a film with a premise that could easily fit a mainstream studio comedy of today or yesteryear. Under a different director this could be a bland and sanitised rom-com film with endless awkward interactions, spying and car chases. Oddly enough, there’s all three of these things in this film. Laura and Felix spy on Dean as he’s leaving a fancy dinner; Felix races through New York in an old convertible to stay abreast with Dean’s taxi; and thanks to Bill Murray’s consistently excellent sardonic wit, those awkward interactions are certainly present. What’s so great is that it’s all executed in Coppola’s typical low-key, understated style. It’s really just a light and playful hangout caper where Bill Murray can flex his comedic chops.
In Lost in Translation, Murray turned down his comedic senses for a more tender performance which helped convey the downbeat nature of Bob Harris as a character. Felix is a far more larger-than-life presence in this story and Coppola wisely lets him go bigger throughout. There’s a sardonic world-weariness which Murray brings that many will believe is too monotone, but his dry wit really conjures up some big laughs—bigger than you’d expect from your typical Coppola feature. Felix is a character that could easily come off as annoyingly narcissistic but at times you can’t help but enjoy his shameless flirtations with nearly every woman around him. He’s a bit pathetic in that you both laugh at him and with him simultaneously.
Felix’s reputation as a chauvinist even manages to wreak havoc on his own family. Coppola doesn’t shy him away from serious critique, and it lends to some of the more impactful character beats with Laura and Felix. While this definitely isn’t Coppola’s most thematically rich text, she is able to weave an undercurrent of interesting commentary on marriage and monogamy throughout. Felix is one of the people who believe it’s in a man’s nature to dominate. “The bangle is a reminder that women were once men’s property,” he even says to Laura at one point. It’s in many ways why he wants to complete this mission. He realises that normalising Dean’s behaviour is ultimately normalising his behaviour.
Rashida Jones has been a great comedic presence for over a decade now, and it’s both shocking and disappointing that she rarely gets to flex her everywoman charm in a leading comedic role in film. She delivers a great performance because she has to be the foil to Murray’s antics. The role of the comedy ‘straight man’ is always so underappreciated and the reason why Murray works so well is directly because of Jones’s awkward and loveable charm. Laura is a protagonist who when introduced, feels familiar in the context of Coppola’s work.
There’s a notable shot early on with Laura in bed while a Roomba (one of those circular autonomous vacuum cleaners) casually goes through her room, constantly hitting walls and trying to change direction. It’s a clear symbolic note to Laura at her current point in life—she’s in a state of flux. Laura’s trying to write a novel, and is overcome with anxiety at the fact that she can’t simply start to write. She’s anxious about Fiona’s toiletries being in Dean’s possession, understandably. It’s Laura’s anxiety and the boredom which fuels such anxiety that is the driver of the story moving forward. And seeing Dean be unfaithful is almost what Laura wants, giving her an excuse for her cycle of anxiety and a reason for being stuck in her creative flux. Under a director who simply wants to deliver a comedic romp, this wouldn’t have been touched on, but Coppola is adept with interweaving theme even in her more lightweight efforts.
One thing you can always guarantee from a Coppola film is complete immersion in the setting. Much like Los Angeles in The Bling Ring, 18th century France in Marie Antoinette and Tokyo in Lost in Translation, New York City feels like a character within this story. It’s a love letter to the city’s bustling streets and active nightlife. Reteaming with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd from The Beguiled, he and Coppola conjure a visual aesthetic which captures a nostalgic feel about the city. Seeing Felix glide through New York City in his convertible almost conjured up the feeling of Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth gliding through 1969 LA in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last year. When the story shifts away from New York City for a period, there’s a sense of feeling and soul that’s completely lost. It’s the weakest portion of the film because the setting doesn’t feel like it’s adding to the experience in any way—a rarity for Coppola.
There’s also a nice supporting turn from Marlon Wayans, who’s refreshingly understated in a rare dramatic role. Jenny Slate gets to flex her comedic chops for a short role, but it’s one which doesn’t really add to the story in any meaningful way.
On the Rocks could be very divisive. Compared to the director’s other works, there’s an unseriousness and weightlessness to the material which many will conclude as being utterly devoid of substance. While it’s arguably Coppola’s most disposable and least personal film, it’s still a lovely addition to her underappreciated catalogue. It doesn’t contain the big stylistic choices of her other films—especially Marie Antoinette or The Virgin Suicides—but it works as a light and breezy hangout movie with Bill Murray delivering a comedic turn of old. Seeing a film with city streets abuzz, especially that of New York City, is a refreshing sight for 2020. It’s a bouncy, tender film that so many would need right now.
On the Rocks is showing at Luna Palace chains from October 2 to October 14.