In Review: On the Rocks

In her delightful seventh feature On the Rocks, Sofia Coppola captures the New York City streets so lovingly as to deceive you into thinking she has always been a New York filmmaker. Or maybe it’s simply that the warmth and generosity she casts over her characters is so overflowing that it can only pour over into their surroundings. Without question, this is her most affectionate film, a deceptively light quasi-screwball comedy about reconciling a parent’s bullshit when it manifests in your adult life. 

But here Coppola seems to be leaving many of her definitive fascinations behind – most obvious being an Angeleno atmosphere both literal and in vibe, but also the dying gasps of youth. Instead she reveals some of the deeper characteristics of her point of view that register more subtly: suppressed emotional displacement, the fitful enlightenment of aging, and our inability to see just how good we have it. Is On the Rocks something of a pivot for the filmmaker? It at least feels like she has shed something cinematically, and given way to deeper feeling.

Rashida Jones stars as Laura, a writer and mother stumbling into listlessness in SoHo. After a wordless and loaded late-night interaction, Laura becomes fixated on the notion that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) might be having an affair with his coworker. Add then she finds a woman’s dop kit in his luggage. Enter Laura’s philandering father Felix (Bill Murray), who goads her fears in an effort to spend time with her, all the way to Hawaii and back. Felix’s own indiscretions are always top of mind, though his impish self-awareness does nothing to absolve him.

The film also seems to cheekily respond to many of Coppola’s criticisms for how her filmography is stewing in a navel-gazing privilege. On the Rocks isn’t not that, but here Coppola offers a protagonist who is also stuck in the same myopia. This is, after all, a movie with caviar in vintage sports cars and fancy cocktails in iconic uppercrust bars. Laura and Dean live across the street from a Chanel store. But here such extravagances are inextricable from Felix’s unconscious influence on Laura, like jet fuel to the disillusionment that prevents Laura from having a grounded perspective on her blessed life. Laura is so dulled by encroaching mid-life malaise and her gifted life, but her journey is in discovering the noise implanted by Felix’s life. And still Coppola operates delicately from a holistic point of view, rather than one of judgment.

Embedded in this is a subtle (though, yes, still compassionate) critique of Murray’s own screen persona. Reuniting with her Lost in Translation star, Coppola returns him to the more whimsically hilarious roots of his career after she had revitalized him into more sullen characters. In turn, Murray gives his best, funniest, and most relaxed performance since that Oscar nominated turn, offering a litany of bellylaughs with ease and a complex sense of Felix’s half-guilty approach.

But the film belongs to the understated, but fully composed Jones. Given the most nuanced character arc since her underrated work in Celeste and Jesse Forever, Jones matches Coppola’s delicate tonal balance with a performance that is precise about portraying the ungraspable in Laura’s sense of dissatisfaction. Perhaps some of the film’s firm sense of groundedness comes from her naturalism, or Jones’ ability to never under or overplay a scene’s emotion. Her chemistry with Murray is just as specific, painting a believable father-daughter relationship stooped in loving and painful push and pull of unavoidable history.

A first impulse might be to view the film as Coppola’s least ambitious or most slight. But that would discount how insightfully she presents the layers of Laura’s baggage, or the density of her characterizations. Even with a somewhat familiar New York setting, the auteur remains exacting about the world she is examining, right down to a hilarious Jenny Slate as a fellow mom who spends school pickup times unloading grave-serious relationship updates on Laura. And what a joy to see a film so drunk on New York’s image in the grand tradition of cinema history; in capturing the city’s romance, she also imbues her story with its soulful optimism. 

With Sofia Coppola at her most casual and unvarnished, On the Rocks settles in to its metropolitan melancholy and crackling comic sensibility without ever overplaying its hand. Unflashy but still quietly moving, Coppola’s wit has never felt more effortless or abundant than it does here. It’s a reservedly tender story of fathers and daughters about the ways our parents can mold our anxieties without us realizing it, gilded with wisdom and the warmest of embraces.

B+

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