On the RocksReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/30/20 04:59:50
Not counting brief appearances in a handful of films throughout the Eighties, Sofia Coppola’s first major film credit came at the age on 18 when she collaborated with her father, Francis, on the screenplay for “Life Without Zoe,” his contribution to “New York Stories” (1989), his contribution to “New York Stories,” an anthology movie that also included works by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. While Scorsese did a driving drama on art and obsession and Allen came up with an inspired farce about a middle-aged man whose domination by his elderly mother takes on an insane new dimension following a mystical mishap, the Coppolas came up with a whimsical fantasy, one clearly inspired by the old “Eloise” stories (and presumably their own relationship to some degree), about a rich-but-sweet 12-year-old girl who lives at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and, left mostly alone by her famous and glamorous parents, gets involved in a number of misadventures. The end result was pretty dire—even their much-maligned collaboration the next year on “The Godfather III” offered greater artistic dividends—and as Coppola unexpectedly made her transformation from the poster child for nepotism to one of the most exciting American filmmakers at work today with such films as “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and her remake of “The Beguiled” (2017), that short has pretty much been forgotten by all.Then again, maybe not because while there is no overt connection between “Life Without Zoe” and her latest film, “On the Rocks,” the argument could me made that it is a sort of spiritual sequel. Both involved women from well-to-do families who are left alone a lot and who get into misadventures. Both deal to a degree with the undeniably loving but sometimes fraught relationships between fathers and daughters. Both even have plot points that involve things like birthday celebrations and missing jewelry. The key difference between the two is that while “Life Without Zoe” was little more than a meaningless trifle about as substantial as a macaroon made entirely out of crepe paper, “On the Rocks” is one of the very best films of the year, one that looks light and frothy on the surface but which contains some surprising depths as well as a couple of great performances to boot.
Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) are a well-to-do married couple with a couple of adorable kids, a nicely appointed loft and all the accoutrements that would seem to define “ideal marriage” to most people. Nevertheless, Laura is feeling vaguely dissatisfied about things, albeit in ways she can barely articulate. She still clearly loves Dean and he obviously loves her and the kids. However, his new business venture is forcing him to go on a lot of out-of-town work trips that leave her feeling a little neglected, especially when she meets his impossibly glamorous co-worker (and frequent travel companion) Fiona (Jessica Henwick). However, since she cannot actually put her finger on anything concrete that is wrong, she is content to keep her vague sense of ennui at bay by keeping it all in while maintaining as low of a profile as possible, even though that winds up exacerbating her sense of self-doubt. Her inchoate feelings are finally brought into focus one night when Dean comes home late from a trip to London, still groggy from the Xanax he took for the flight, and begins getting frisky with Laura, only to stop when she says something—almost as if he was surprised to hear her voice and not someone else’s. To add to her suspicions, when she is unpacking his bag the next day, she comes across what proves to be Fiona’s makeup bag—he says she couldn’t fit it into her carry-on on the plane and he put it in his suitcase and forgot about it.
Although these incidents may sound a bit fishy, they don’t really prove anything and when Laura voices her concerns to a couple of people, they think that the notion of Dean having an affair is highly unlikely. The one voice of dissent comes from, of all places, Laura’s father, Felix (Bill Murray), a rich semi-retired art dealer with a never-ending line of patter and a flirtatious remark for every woman who comes across his path—the kind of guy who would have once been called a “bon vivant.” Based on his own lifetime of infidelity, including with Laura’s mother, Felix, who has just returned to New York after a spell in Paris, thinks that her hunch may be correct and suggests digging a little deeper to see what else they can find. Although she loves her dad (if a little warily at times), Laura thinks he is crazy but when he comes up with some additional information that seems to bolster her suspicions, the two go off into the night to follow Dean’s moves and get to the bottom of it all.While undergoing their nocturnal adventures, Laura and Felix also find themselves confronting their own long-unresolved issues as well.
On the surface, “On the Rocks” may sound like a modern-day screwball comedy, the kind of film that is driven almost exclusively by the number of loopy narrative developments that the characters are forced to go through in order to get from point A to point B, usually located somewhere in the closing reel. That might have made for a funny and entertaining film but it would have been one almost entirely dependent on the machinations of the plot and, as anyone who has seen the films of Sofia Coppola can attest, that is an aspect of the filmmaking process that has never held much appeal to her. She is more interested in telling stories that are driven by mood, style and character and even when she is working on a project that has a relatively solid narrative base to work from (as was the case with “Marie Antoinette” and “The Beguiled”), it winds up taking a background to the other stuff.
This approach may prove to be frustrating to some viewers who go to her films expecting a straightforward story—remember all the people who went to “Lost in Translation” based on the rave reviews and came away from it thinking “Is that all there is?”—but for those on Coppola’s wavelength, the results have proven to be sublime and “On the Rocks” is no exception. In fact, the only time that the film comes close to stumbling is when the plot begins to dominate the proceedings a little heavily during an unexpected sojourn to Mexico. She also correctly realizes, unlike with “Life Without Zoe,” that the vague problems of a well-off woman with a loving husband and perfect family might not resonate especially well with a lot of viewers. Instead, she focuses more on examining the loving but strained relationship between Laura and Felix. At the very beginning of the film, we hear Felix telling a young Laura that even after she grows up and gets married, she will always be his. It is a joke, of course, but as we see them together, it is apparent that he still does feel that way on some level and that she has been regarded more like an audience to him than a child—someone who can stand back and quietly observe as he takes over every room that he enters with such practiced ease that even he doesn’t seem to notice anymore. Now she finds herself in roughly the same position with Dean and since she knows the depths of her father’s infidelity, she presumably assumes Dean is the same way.
As for Felix, he feels like a Seventies-era issue of “Playboy” in human form—he is slick and charming to everyone he meets, embraces a form of casual sexism so blatant that it is almost impossible to be offended (he claims that he is losing the ability to hear the voices of women) and seems to have never met a situation in which he couldn’t dominate with his stream of endless patter and overstuffed bank account. (In one of the funniest scenes, albeit one that might not play well these days with some audiences, he and Laura are pulled over while he is speeding through the streets in his sports car and not only does he manage to talk his way out of any number of tickets, he gets the cops to push the car for him until it kicks into gear.) What prevents Felix from coming across as nothing more than a callow boor is the fact that deep down, even he seems to realize that he is a fraud—a guy who has made a lot of money selling other people’s work and has used his glibness to get complete strangers to like him, if only for a few minutes, while at the same time using it to push the people who genuinely love him away. When he hits upon the idea of following Dean around, he may act like the idea of catching him in the act is the driving force but as things progress, it becomes more apparent that what is really pushing him on is the chance to spend some time with his daughter as a way of half-heartedly making up for the past.
Although all of Coppola’s films to date could be described as personal projects—she is simply not the sort who is likely to sign on to do an anonymous genre exercise or franchise epic in exchange for a big paycheck (though the idea of her applying her approach to something like the MCU or the “Star Wars” universe is undeniably tantalizing)—her films have been more or less split between existing stories that she has come across (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring” and “The Beguiled”) and ones that appear to have be more personally felt (“Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere”). “On the Rocks” falls squarely into the latter category and while it is a lot of fun at times, there is an underpinning of truth to the sight of a woman trying to come to terms with her father that keeps it grounded in a reality the viewers of all stripes will no doubt recognize. On a technical level, her work is as sublime as ever—few filmmakers working today are demonstrating the visual style and clarity that she, along with cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd (who also shot “The Beguiled”), conjure up in scene after scene as the film shifts from school hallways to the interiors of cars to the bar at the Carlyle Hotel.
At the heart of the film, however, are the lovely central performances from Rashida Jones and Bill Murray as Laura and Felix. Although this is the first time that Jones has worked with Coppola (it seems that she played the role of Charlotte when her acting class was used by Coppola to workshop her script for “Lost in Translation”), she fits into the proceedings so perfectly that it feels as if the two have been working together forever. The character of Laura is one that is a lot trickier to pull off than it might seem—one false step and she could easily transform into an overprivileged whiner in the eyes of the audience—but she handles it with enormous grace and when she finally lets her long-simmering anger loose during the Mexican interlude, it is a genuinely powerful moment. Murray, on the other hand, has worked with Coppola before, on “Lost in Translation” and the brilliant Netflix special “A Very Murray Christmas,” and, perhaps more so than any other director he has worked with, she knows exactly how to use his perpetual hangdog look and detached demeanor to suggest a surface charm that is only barely covering a sense of melancholy and desolation that his quips cannot entirely keep at bay. Their scenes together are brilliant as they create an onscreen father-daughter relationship that is so convincing that there are times when it almost feels as if we are eavesdropping rather than watching a movie.“On the Rocks” has no great message to deliver and some may find themselves annoyed by the way it handles the ultimate resolution of the question of Dean’s fidelity. That may be true but while I could name any number of recent movies with weightier messages behind them and more satisfying narrative resolutions, my guess is that most of them will fade from memory in time while moments from this one will continue to linger. This is a smart, funny, touching and lovely curio of a movie, not to mention a love letter/inadvertent wistful homage to the joys of prowling the streets of New York late at night. (The film even contains a scene of Felix and Laura racing through the streets in his sports car that is the closest that Coppola has ever come to presenting a full-on action sequence—it is funny, though my guess is that Michael Mann will not lose too much sleep over it.) In these weird times, its quiet grace and style feel like a cinematic balm that will envelope you right from the start and linger long after it has come to an end. This film is a real treasure.
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