The title of On the Rocks, Sofia Coppola’s sweet, brisk, and well-liquored new comedy, can be read two ways. At first it would seem to describe a happy Manhattan marriage that comes under threat when Laura (Rashida Jones), a writer, becomes concerned that her heavy-traveling entrepreneur husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair. His new company is taking off, and he’s been spending a lot of hours at the office and on the road, many of them in the company of an attractive new colleague (Jessica Henwick). Laura’s suspicions are encouraged by her worldly art-dealer father, Felix (Bill Murray), who knows a thing or two about dishonoring romantic partners from personal experience and who supplies the title’s other meaning by consuming a steady stream of alcoholic beverages. Much of On the Rocks, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, unfolds in bars and restaurants of vintage wood-paneled elegance, where Felix is invariably friendly with the staff (or just good at pretending). He drags his daughter to these classic spots stuffing her with martinis and ice cream, wild anecdotes and practical wisdom, hoping to chase away her loneliness and perhaps satisfy his own.
Watching the two of them together, you might be flooded with your own loneliness. Coppola shot the film in New York last summer, and the sights and sounds of COVID-free nightlife — the background music, the barroom chatter, the clink of plates and silverware, the beautifully tactile enveloping shadows of Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography — are likely to induce an exquisite sense of longing. So will the daytime scenes of Laura dropping off her kids, Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and Theo (Alexandra and Anna Reimer), at school and then returning by choice, not necessity, to her home office, where she’s dealing with a serious case of writer’s block. In addition to being an intimate, generally lighthearted comedy of family ties and wayward eyes, On the Rocks is an accidental time capsule of pre-pandemic life, set in a New York that might have looked idyllic even if the movie had been released last year. Seen in the harsh glare of the present, the characters’ problems — generational differences, martial anxieties, creative impulses — might seem both derivative and almost desirably quaint, though in a way that produces more sympathy than scorn. We’ve been here before, after all. And this is hardly the first Sofia Coppola movie to situate itself at a cautious remove from reality, to treat comedy, romance, fantasy and even history as a kind of barrier against the tensions and traumas of the outside world.
For me, the sense of willed isolation in Coppola’s movies has always felt knowing, purposeful, and often affecting; to some, it’s been a sign of her irredeemable obliviousness. Some of her best films, notably Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, have been dismissed as frivolous ornaments, steeped in the unexamined privilege and commodity fetishism of a lifelong Hollywood royal. Few would deny that Coppola knows her way around the celebrity bubble, though given some of the jabs thrown her way, who could blame her for staying there? Even when she doesn’t — even when she steps back into the distant past, as she did in her spare, haunting Civil War tale, The Beguiled — she tends to get knocked for (or not) grasping at subjects presumably beyond her reach (a pretty fatuous take, if I say so). It would be presumptuous to suggest that she’s back in her comfort zone with On the Rocks, in part because her filmmaking, whether it arises from comfort or discomfort, rarely betrays any strain. The personal dimensions of the story are obvious but graceful: While Coppola has acknowledged that the character of Felix was partly inspired by her own famous father, legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, the more important reference point may be her earlier collaboration with Murray, Lost in Translation.
In that Oscar-winning art-house favorite, Murray played Bob Harris, a jet-lagged Tokyo drifter whose most expressive quality was his quiet, sardonic reserve. Like Bob, Felix drinks a lot; unlike Bob, he’s an incessant talker, a deep-seated flirt, a doting grandpa and a guy with the advantage of being on his home turf. To Laura he is not just a father but a confidant and something of a double agent, someone whose own romantic problems — he and her mother split up years earlier — might finally come in handy. When Laura calls him with concerns that Dean may be cheating, Felix immediately assumes the worst, in part because he has been the worst himself. “You need to start thinking like a man,” he says, and then proceeds to give her a feature-length demonstration. As he sips Bacardi, chats up the wait staff and runs into old friends and flames left and right, Felix treats her to a running lecture on the impossibility of monogamy and the primal, ancient nature of human sexuality. She greets all this father-knows-best chatter with exasperated eye-rolls but also a daughter’s natural indulgence. As much as she wants to believe in her husband, she can’t help but go along with her dad’s cynicism as well as his increasingly elaborate plans to trap Dean mid-deception.
Some low-key screwball shenanigan’s ensue, involving a private investigator, a sporty red convertible and a sudden, impulsive trip down south. The bursts of madcap energy feel like something new in Coppola’s work, but the comic engine that powers this movie is ultimately its star’s merry-prankster persona. You see in Felix the sly deadpan streak that has made Murray a force in American comedy for decades, and here is presence and chemistry with Jones is a continuous pleasure that gives often. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura mutters at one point, and On the Rocks, though punch-drunk in love with its star, doesn’t really contradict her. It’s a shame we don’t get more time with some of her other, less narcissistic family members, though Dad’s antics are fun to watch — at least until they aren’t. As Felix drags his daughter all over New York and beyond, you may start to wonder if there’s anything more to him than his fabulous connections and his money. You may also find yourself wishing that Jones, though affectingly down-to-earth as ever, had been give a fully developed character to play, rather than a set of straight-man reactions: scold, shrug, sip, repeat. This is the least sensual of Coppola’s movies; though at times soothing, it’s easily her chattiest film, running less on meditative, deeply-felt atmosphere and more on traditional character-based interactions. Which is why some of the lacking character work feels more impactful.
To keep the Murray connection going: If Lost in Translation was about not knowing where you’re going, On the Rocks is about not knowing where you’ve ended up. And it’s that form of humanism that makes On the Rocks an intriguing venture: It’s a lightly carbonated story about the danger of trying to reverse the tide when life wants you to swim with the currents, and it’s less interested in how people change than it is in what they cling to. Which might explain why Coppola strains to contrive a way to wrap things up in an overly tidy way. On the Rocks isn’t destined to achieve the same kind of iconic status as some of Coppola’s previous work, but the relationships luckily stay away from the rocky shores and finds enough cerebral pleasures. Laid-back and compellingly humanistic, On the Rocks‘ intimate look at the rut of domesticity may be breezy and tidy to a fault at times, its the film’s endearing soulfulness that let’s it glide smoothly.
On the Rocks premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It will be released in Select Theaters on October 2, and will then be available to stream on Apple TV+ on October 23.