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‘On the Rocks’ Review: Sofia Coppola’s familial drama finds casual tenderness in fractured connections

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones star as a father-daughter duo caught in familiar assumptions about gender, marriage and life.
Credit: A24

The foibles of life and love have perhaps never been analyzed as messily by Sofia Coppola as they are in her newest feature, “On the Rocks.” And perhaps only Coppola can make that messiness an indication of her maturation as a storyteller, one whose recent efforts – “Somewhere, “The Bling Ring,” “The Beguiled” – explore a broad range of physical settings but similar psychological confines with an ultra-patient filmmaking approach that keeps suggestions simmering under the surface until she’s calibrated the perfect moment for them to burst through.

With “On the Rocks” (an A24 project that found a home on Apple TV+), Coppola interestingly ditches that slow-burn philosophy to casually (and somewhat disarmingly) serve up her ponderings like a bartender serving up a filled-to-the-brim appetizer martini, paying little mind to the spare liquor sloshing over the sides. It feels less like transformation than a self-administered litmus test. Shedding an all-knowing aroma for one that is potently exploratory in its deconstruction of cracked relationships, she brings herself down to our level and to the level of her protagonist, Laura (Rashida Jones), a New York City-based writer caught at an impasse of suspicion and self-doubt. Played with a dubious but cool-headed passivity that Jones retains even when her character has all the reason in the world not to (like, say, when her husband’s female colleagues are a bit too quick to bring up how “nice” it is to “work” with him), Laura is a trademark Coppola recluse to the extent that she finds herself emotionally displaced from her immediate surroundings; between the bustling city streets and rapid-fire chattiness of her fellow urbanites, Laura’s weariness is excruciatingly palpable whenever Jenny Slate’s Vanessa reappears as the peppy parent eager to drown her in conversation.

But where Coppola would tease muted intentions meant to be deciphered, Laura instead represents someone with just as much to learn and gain and be surprised by as the viewer has. You could call it a maneuver to make her latest work more accessible, and perhaps that’s what “On the Rocks” very well is, what with Coppola readjusting to the Chet Bakerness and relatively traditional narrative pacing of it all. But don’t mistake readjustment for mid-career compromise; by breaking away from expectation, aligning our perspective tightly with Laura’s and enlisting her “Lost in Translation” collaborator Bill Murray, Coppola spins “On the Rocks” into a worthwhile story about life’s scrupulous distractions and our unfortunate tendency to overthink them. If the film lacks Coppola’s signature refinement, that may be its prerogative—spilled martini and all.

Laura’s attention is largely divided between two men in her life, although the presence of her business trip-prone husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is more psychological than physical. “On the Rocks” starts with Laura gleefully jumping into a pool to join her newly betrothed while still wearing her bridal veil, but the ship of enchanted beginnings has long sailed as Dean preoccupies himself with securing deals to expand his company an unspecified amount of time down the road, leaving his wife to fend off the stress normally reserved for a single parent. And how about starting on that book she’s been contracted to write? Forget about it; her home office may be massive, but it’s empty of clear-headed drive. It doesn’t help that she’s increasingly zeroing in on Dean’s late nights and apathetic demeanor at home—tell-tale signs that he may be having an affair behind her back.

Dean’s ostensible foil is Murray’s witty and warm Felix, a poster child for romantic complacency who deploys a refined womanizing resume (including past toe-dipping into waters of infidelity) to encourage Laura to keep close tabs on Dean, volunteering himself to help navigate a marriage on the rocks while he sips on a drink ordered on the rocks (aha!). A tale of father-daughter hangout hijinks ensues that skips, sometimes recklessly, along a line of sincerity and silliness; the duo take a joyride in a cherry-red coup before slowing things down for Murray to croon romantically against the backdrop of Mexican shores in an image that’s exactly as effervescent as it sounds. There’s a pep to the movie’s step whenever Murray and Jones share the screen; the actors share a knack for dry wit that’s endearing, comical and tender, too.

But under that fanciful exterior is a pensive movie that challenges our sympathies, slyly subverting dramatic tropes in the process. Coppola understands there are inherent pleasures in watching Murray riff on man’s Darwinian dominion over woman while Jones gets plenty of mileage out of her thin-lined smirk, and in their many conversations (this is one of Coppola’s most verbose screenplays) does she attempt to bring ingrained ironies and contradictions to the fore of Laura’s dilemma. “Can any man be monogamous?” she blurts out at another of her father’s anecdotes of past female conquest, and it may as well be the movie’s thesis just as her exhausted tone is our emotional anchor point. But it’s plain to see how relieved she is to see Felix whenever he shows up announced; Murray, as much a beloved uncle to American moviegoers as Tom Hanks, is practically playing himself here, to delightfully zany and morally flimsy ends.  

Credit: A24

That familiarity is weaponized by Coppola, who finds grooves in the exposition to sprout complicated questions about how much unconfronted history we’re willing to brush aside to heal a fractured connection. Or, perhaps, to preserve it. Dean and Felix are both part of that equation; Laura is, in a sense, at their mercy as the wife or daughter who will always be waiting at home, even if not so patiently. And like life’s slippery slopes that gradually get steeper before we realize it, the way Dean and Felix pay no mind to the small things setting off alarm bells in the heads of Laura and the viewer becomes Coppola’s channel for exploring gendered assumptions. You feel Coppola treading that thematic land as well; she provides a starting point, but the road map to emotional conclusion is faded, for better or for worse.

There’s a universality to the movie’s inquiries by way of Laura’s grounded tensions – compared to the Hollywood star being an outsider in his own world in “Somewhere”; the nighttime capers of “The Bling Ring”; and the shadowy intentions of “The Beguiled” –but there’s also less to discover here as well. Though, make no mistake: if the writing of “On the Rocks” isn’t as sophisticated as what we expect from the filmmaker (third-act monologues blunt the movie’s subtleties), she still exhibits a reliable, soul-crushing finesse of conjuring up images so melancholy you can hear the heart of life’s slow pulse humming in the background. A screen-filling shot of a lone olive dropped into a drink, bittersweetly lit dining rooms, lonely rides in a car’s backseat—”On the Rocks's” sumptuously lonely visuals are an expected high point, even without those hypnotically slow zooms that Coppola likes to employ as a signature.

“You know what’s great about her? She doesn’t talk. She just listens,” Felix says with total deadpan not long after we first meet him. He’s referring to his new assistant, which informs us about his character. We realize he just as well could have said it to someone else about Laura, which informs us about this story. And, on a metatextual level, he could be referring to Coppola, which informs us about the way the writer-director has loosened the reins with her seventh solo feature to let the chemistry between her co-leads fill the space around them with meaning and bubbling reckoning—on the rocks, and on the fly. The drama is a smooth cinematic drink that we barely feel going down, but that tinge you feel after the fact? There’s the warmth.

"On the Rocks" is rated R for some language/sexual references. It's streaming on Apple TV+ now.

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick

Directed by Sofia Coppola

2020

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