‘On The Rocks’ Review (New York Film Festival)

It is about time we start seriously considering the possibility that Sofia Coppola is a better director (or at the very least, a more identifiable auteur) than her iconic father. Sure, Francis Ford gave us The Godfather Trilogy and The Conversation, and some have argued for the artistry of Apocalypse Now. But between Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Beguiled, and even The Virgin Suicides (the less said about The Bling Ring, the better), it is hard to deny that Coppola’s vision of individuals stifled by society and bourgeoisie finding connections have fueled one of the best filmographies of the modern era. And even still, despite that impressive resume of modern-day classics, it is this film, On The Rocks, that may end up as the younger Coppola’s masterpiece. Featuring two of the best performances of the year, On The Rocks manages to explore universal themes of romance, generational divide, the struggles of domesticity, and classism in a breezy, relaxing, beautiful 90-minute runtime.

As she approaches her 39th birthday, Laura (Rashida Jones) finds herself in a rut. She’s run ragged trying to raise her two daughters while simultaneously suffering from writers’ block on her newest novel. And to make matters worse, her beloved husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) has started acting funny – he’s logging late hours at the office, he’s deleting text conversations off his phone, there’s mysterious women’s luggage in his suitcase, and when he passionately kisses her after taking a Xanax on a later international flight, he seems surprised at the recipient of his embrace. Fearing that he may, in fact, be cheating on her, Laura turns to the only expert she knows on infidelity: her father Felix (Bill Murray) a charming bon vivant from a bygone era of hedonism, chauvinism, and skirt-chasing. Felix’s solution? That the two of them take to prowling the streets of New York at night, crashing parties and nightclubs while tailing her wayward husband, and exploring their own complex relationship along the way.

On The Rocks, at its center, is about that period in life where domesticity becomes unfulfilling. Many films have tackled this subject – American Beauty may be the most scathing of the bunch – but few have covered it so honestly or humanely, and especially not from the female perspective. Jones’ Laura is trying to find that spark in life that made her love writing, love her husband, and love her children, but while she certainly appreciates and dotes upon them, she can’t find that balance that makes all three as magical as we all imagine. It’s certainly an old trope – we’ve seen mothers struggling to balance work and home life before – but thanks to Coppola’s deft hand and engaging wit, it feels as fresh and as balanced as it ever has. It may be hard to miss on first viewing, but Laura’s malaise finds itself emerging in ways beyond questioning her husband’s fidelity. Their love life has been in a rut ever since they had kids. She’s incapable of writing anymore, oftentimes just staring at a blank page. Her life is an endless circle of cleaning up others’ messes – first her husband’s, then her children’s – all scored to the brilliantly repetitive “In Re Don Giovanni.” Hell, she’s so far resigned to her malaise that she can’t even whistle anymore.

Whenever she expresses her concerns to her friends, they give her a unassured “He’s such a good guy!” The only person who seems to take her fears seriously is also the reason she has them, as her father only gives her the insecurity-inducing answer “Did you know a woman is at her most beautiful between the ages of 35 and 39?” On The Rocks is about the mental state required to let romance die, whether because of a distant, workaholic husband or because of parental insecurities, and Coppola lets these views permeate throughout the screen. Even her music drives the point home – Chet Baker’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily” scores the happy couple’s wedding, while “I Get Along Without You Very Well” perfectly accompanies an emotional close-up of Laura crying into a martini. It’s a film about finding that spark – in relationships, in work, and in life – and it’s just as beautiful this time around as it has been in any similar fable of the past.

Of course, these questions of gender, love, and domesticity also help punctuate a growing generational divide, and it is in this divide that Coppola finds her unique “in.” For On The Rocks is first and foremost a buddy comedy between a father and daughter who have very different views, personalities, and struggles, and yet connect through an inherent love and a sense of personal failure. It is easy to see why Laura has such mistrust of men – Felix is an old-school chauvinist, hitting on waitresses and random women on the street with equal aplomb. Laura tries to act above his cheating, flirtatious ways, mostly just shaking her head as he advises his granddaughters “Wear your hair long so boys will like you.” But just as the mistakes of the past generations are currently manifesting today, so too do Felix’s behaviors resonate with Laura – had he been a better father, and taught her about her self-worth as opposed to “all men suck, I’m the only one who will ever love you,” perhaps she’d be better suited for her current situation. On The Rocks is about forgiving our parents as we come to understand each other in our own adulthood, through fun adventures.

It’s worth noting that while Felix’s chauvinism is a major point of the film, and yet we never turn on him completely for three vital reasons. The first is Murray’s natural charisma and magnetic energy, which draws us to him even as he’s uttering some otherwise-vile worldviews. The second is the fact that Coppola portrays his objectifications as sort of going the full gamut – they aren’t just a “sign of the times,” Felix has so devoted himself to the idea of people-pleasing that his blatant objectifications of women are applied to all – he’s that nice to everyone, to the point it’s almost not noticeable when he openly flirts with his granddaughters’ ballet teacher. And the third, most important reason is that the film never treats his viewpoints with anything resembling respect. Each horrific aside, which include such gems as “The bangle bracelet is a reminder that women were once men’s property” and “Men don’t have an emotional filter! They just see eyes and asses!” is played with the same wit the legendary comic once brought to Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors, and for that reason we laugh at Felix just as much as we laugh with him. The script is smart and strong enough to let the humor of his exchanges shine through without endorsement, and even allows him a few moments of pathos. When Felix notes, late in the film, that “We all just want to be loved,” it does play as an attempt to explain away his douchey behavior, yet also rings with an honesty and sympathy that he may understand, but not wish to say out loud. It’s proof of the strength of both Murray’s performance and Coppola’s script.

In fact, even when they aren’t exploring their own complex history, it is evident in each and every scene that Felix and Laura’s chemistry as father/daughter is what carries the film, emotionally and comedically. From their first scene together, the duo crackles with living energy. Jones looks at Murray the way most of us look at our own parents, with equal embarrassment and idolization. I mean, despite his terrible advice and views, how can you not love the way Felix interacts with the world around him? He has all the ins, including an interconnected string of concierges, photographs with Obama and Andy Warhol, and the (alleged) ability to track credit cards. Despite his occasionally spotty advice, it is clear that he knows how to play with and dote upon his granddaughters (even if he sometimes uses them as an excuse to his upon their ballet instructor). And when Laura’s birthday arrives, there’s only one person who remembers to send her a bouquet of flowers. Few scenes are as utterly beautiful as Felix giving her his old watch and turning a ridiculous, potentially sexist aside (“I remember the first time I saw you as a person”) into a touching, beautiful moment of parental love, and there are few times I’ve wanted to be inside a car with a character as much as I wanted to be with Felix and Laura, eating caviar on crackers and talking about life.

Felix’s behavior is humorous and charming to both Laura and the audience, at least on the surface, but it goes far deeper than that. The subtext to all their adventures is Felix trying to reconnect to the daughter whom he knows he’s f*cked up, at least emotionally. While there’s no doubt he loves his daughter deeply, there’s also no doubt that his selfish behavior, womanizing, false-philosophizing, and cavalier attitude towards love has caused her serious issues later in life. It’s why she can’t trust her husband, it’s why she struggles to connect with other people, and it’s why there’s a nagging doubt that she’s unhappy in her domestic life. Their gallivantings about New York (and eventually Mexico) all carry traces of a full gamut of personal troubles: Felix trying to find any excuse to reconnect with his daughter, Felix trying to apologize for his own role in her unhappiness, and Laura’s trying to reconcile the dual image of Father As Hero and Father As Letch. The film is a love story, but not one between a husband and wife. This is a love story between a father and daughter, who have always struggled to connect and want to enjoy each other’s company with whatever time they have left.

Of course, underneath the generational and romantic struggles that make up the meat of the film is an undercurrent of class criticism – some of the sharpest in Coppola’s oeuvre. Indeed, most of the director’s works have commented on the malaise of the upper echelons of society, and while there’s nothing that sounds as out of place in 2020 as the message “Oh, poor me, I’m too rich,” On The Rocks manages to ground its commentary in the humorous, messy problems that sort of living breeds for itself, without ever resorting to schadenfreude. Honestly, this is some of the best criticism Coppola has accomplished to date, and at least since her back-to-back masterpieces Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. A major reason for Laura’s feelings of disconnect is the sheer miserableness of the Manhattanite hellscape she inhabits. Fellow moms show up with severe chemical burns that will “look amazing in three days.” She’s constantly bombarded with hilarious tales of infidelity and naiveté from fellow mom Vanessa (Jenny Slate, a damn delight). Hell, even her own husband only speaks in obnoxious tech jargon, braggadocious asides, and put-downs (intentional or otherwise) of her artistry. I’m not sure there’s anything an author hates hearing more than having their craft and passion diminished to “How’s the thing going?” Even Coppola’s filmmaking captures the coldness of the experience – most of the mundane daytime activities are captured with her traditionally cold camera angles and scenic design.

Each moment in Laura’s life outside of her experiences with her father is painted as a brilliant moment of socialite satire, filled with jumbled millionaire talk-speak, painful bits of self-molding, and a driving sense of malaise for all involved, whether explicitly stated or otherwise. Indeed, the key reason she begins to feel alive when she’s with her father is that he’s the first (and damn near only) character to both treat her like a human and have fun. He is an escape from the esoteric world she feels trapped in. And yet even her father represents the downside of opulence. In a wonderful bit of comedy midway through the film, Laura and Felix find themselves pulled over by two tough Irish cops, whom Felix proceeds to sweet talk, charm, and ultimately manipulate through Murray’s gift of the gab and amiable personality. It’s a great bit, and as Murray fans, seems logical, and yet Coppola, perhaps for the first time in her time as a director, laces the sequence with an undercurrent of privilege, both in terms of wealth and in terms of whiteness. It’s never outright stated, but the implication is there nonetheless. And sometimes, saying less is the best way to say more. On The Rockspaints a picture of deeply unhappy people ruined by unlimited amounts of money, without losing either the audience’s sympathy or the narrative’s sense of whimsical, joyful humor.

In terms of acting, On The Rocks’ ensemble is a knockout across the board, but I won’t pretend that it’s not, at its core, a scrumptious two-hander. Murray in particular is at the top of his game, utilizing his celebrity status and decades of similarly impish characters to cultivate a wonderfully nuanced character of chaos. You hear Murray’s Felix before you see him, through voiceovers and phone calls, establishing his larger-than-life status long before you ever actually witness his extroverted, exploitative ways. It’s hard not to get drawn immediately into Murray’s performance, as he woos women and audiences through his desire to do nothing more than drive around New York in an incredibly loud classic convertible in a pageboy cap and ascot, loudly and passionately singing to himself. Murray’s entire oeuvre has been prefaced on his ability to crack wise and get away with behaviors normal society would (often rightfully) frown upon, and that’s essentially his role here. Listening to Murray crack jokes while occasionally (and horrifically) theorizing on the animalistic destiny of men to chase after women and spread his seed is the type of juicy role that only someone of Phil Connors or Carl Spackler’s caliber could make work. And that’s not to mention his dramatic side – one of the film’s best moments comes when Felix is forced to reminisce about the mistress that ended his marriage who tragically died young, and the mournful self-loathing present in that speech is some of the Hollywood legend’s best work to date.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to view Jones as overshadowed by her iconic costar, but that’s because Murray has the easier job. Jones has been a star on the rise for years, stealthily stealing films out from underneath her famous costars since The Office, I Love You, Man, and Parks and Recreation. However, despite her deadpan stylings and complex emotional range, she has inexplicably never had the chance for a lead role, outside of the terrific rom-com Celeste and Jesse Forever. So the moment Coppola gifts her the chance to not only go tête-à-tête with Bill Murray, but to encapsulate an entire emotional journey filled with ennui, neuroticism, and emotional baggage, it is unsurprising to see her revel in the opportunity. Jones plays every scene with the proper mixture of exasperation and admiration, balancing personal problems and a flawed parental relationship with the sheer admiration of witnessing Murray’s antics. It’s a performance that both mirrors the audience’s desire to witness Murray being Murray while simultaneously existing as a terrific, three-dimensional character on its own. Outside of the two leads, Marlon Wayans doesn’t have a lot to do, but he does it perfectly – I’m impressed with how well he captures the douchey tech bro persona just through his pointed use of the jargon. Meanwhile, I want to shout out Jenny Slate, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her five minutes of screentime as a neurotic, self-absorbed single mom at Laura’s children’s school. And while child actors can be hit and miss, Liyanna Muscat and in particular Alexandra Mary Reimer rank among some of my favorites I’ve seen.

On The Rocks is the type of masterful piece of storytelling they just don’t make anymore. It’s the type of smart, straightforward narrative one could have found in the 1930s, 1950s, or even 1970s. Sofia Coppola has outdone herself, taking all her favorite themes like generational divide, complex familial relationships, and bourgeoise malaise and boiling them down into a breezy, relaxing character piece. I could have lived in this film for another three hours, just travelling to different New York locations with Felix and Laura. Murray and Jones make this duo so loving, so likable, and so original, you can’t help but revel in their presence – even as they’re falling apart, or revealing their broken, troubled cores. I adored this lovable, lively film, and I can’t wait to revisit it again and again.


On The Rocks is now playing in theaters, and will premiere on Apple TV+ October 23rd

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