ON THE ROCKS (directed by Sophia Coppola, 96 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Sofia Coppola’s followup to 2017’s The Beguiled has the director once again returning to the themes of isolation and alienation that echo throughout her filmography, but this time exploring they hit a bit closer to home. Like 2010’s Somewhere, On The Rocks, which is both written and directed by Coppola feels very autobiographical as it explores the disorienting and dispiriting sense of psychic dislocation that can often creep into both marriage and motherhood. The film focuses on Laura (Rashida Jones), a successful author suffering from writer’s block, who suspects her husband/father of her children (Marlon Wayans of infidelity. When her globe-trotting playboy art-dealer father Felix (Bill Murray) comes to town to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, hijinks ensue when the duo decide to investigate Laura’s suspicions.
The ensemble cast of On The Rocks vibes like Coppola addressing the critics that have called her out for the primarily Caucasian casts of her filmography. That being said, her artistic choices here are inspired and apt. Rashida Jones turns in an engaging yet understated performance that really helps when acting opposite the more bombastic Murray. Marlon Wayans however is almost unrecognizable, having disappeared into a role that has the underrated actor showing a range we haven’t seen since his turn in Requiem For A Dream. He really digs deep into the drama of the situation, delivering a very weighted performance that still takes a rather comedic turn when he is confronted by Felix. While Murray has mastered this sort of tragic yet comedic personae in his indie outings, it’s great to see both leads show they have the chops when going toe-to-toe with the legend.
Digging into the character a bit, Rashida Jones feels like a pretty transparent surrogate for Coppola — a creative living in Soho with her two children and her husband, just like the daughter of a certain famous director. Given her working relationship with Murray, and his appearance in several of her projects, I’ve always been curious about their working dynamic — Coppola seems very pragmatic in interviews when compared with the more whimsical mercurial Murray. This film seems to speak to that by making Laura’s father an amalgam of both Murray and her real life father Francis Ford Coppola. It’s an odd mix of comedic sidekick and living legend that Murray hilariously pinballs back and forth between in his scenes.
On the Rocks is Coppola’s take the invariably male dominated sub-genre of The New York Film. That being the case, the film suffers a little from her reverence to the rules of said sub-genre a the cinematography errs a bit on the more traditional side compared to the dreamy and almost instagram-esque look of Virgin Suicides or The Beguiled. There is an obvious focus on highlighting the cityscapes and locations, this is paired with the requisite High Jazz soundtrack. As cliche as it sounds, New York is used as a character here in the film, and helps define this world of wealth and privilege to a certain extent. Thankfully Coppola has chosen to try to infuse this rather stereotypical white setting with a bit more humanity and diversity than its usually afforded.
While the film has this lighthearted comedic sub-narrative with Felix and Laura playing detective, the film also explores a kind of loneliness that we rarely see from a female perspective in cinema. This theme is intertwined with how complacency takes root in a relationship only to slowly unravel it by sowing the seeds of doubt. This doubt is accentuated by Laura’s own relationship with her father and his history of infidelity that’s left a lasting mark on our protagonist and how she sees men. While the film still has the echoes of pensiveness Coppola is known for, there is hope and a bit of growth when all is said and done, which is definitely something new for the young auteur whose default setting seems to be wallowing in melancholy.