On the Rocks is one of Sophia Coppola’s best films. Released in a “normal” year, it certainly would have gotten positive notices from critics and several award nominations. In 2020, however, the various critics circles may consider the movie as too lightweight to be taken seriously in these troubled times. That would be a shame, because for me, the movie was perfect in almost every way. I’m pretty sure I was smiling from beginning to end, and laughed many times at the hi-jinks of Bill Murray’s Felix and his exasperated daughter Laura, played by Rashida Jones. I know that I’m giving this movie high praise, but honestly I don’t think I can praise it enough.
With On the Rocks, Sophia Coppola has finally given us a worthy successor to Lost in Translation, her best film by far. Released way back in 2003, Lost in Translation set a high bar for Coppola with her second full-length picture. While she has released several interesting films since then (Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring and The Beguiled), and her growth as a filmmaker was apparent, she seemed at odds with the material. I always found elements to admire in her previous films, but the end result just wasn’t convincing.
Coppola’s strength is showing us the personal and private moments in people’s lives: casual, intimate conversations between friends and family members, in their homes, at restaurants or bars, or walking around town. On the Rocks is filled with moments like those, and together they produce a film that is fun and engaging, like spending dinner with a longtime friend.
Filmed back in 2019, everything that happens in On the Rocks takes on an aura of wistfulness, back to our pre-pandemic times, where dining in a restaurant, walking your kids to school or traveling by airplane were commonplace activities, free of trepidation and masks. Before March of this year, you could casually enjoy a drink with someone you know without sitting six feet apart from other people. As the months roll on in 2020, I find it harder and harder to remember those things. I’m grateful that a movie like On the Rocks helps me to remember simpler times, even if that effect is completely unintentional.
Sophia Coppola’s direction has always shown a photographer’s eye for composition. With On the Rocks, Coppola has elevated the photography of scenes to a higher level, bringing out the colors and textures of the interiors in sumptuous detail. Shots of New York at night have an impressionist feel. The Yellow Cabs glisten at night. The scenes filmed in Mexico come alive with brilliant colors and sounds of the ocean. Coppola films most of the scenes as medium shots, using close-ups sparingly. Every now and then, Coppola lets us get close to Laura, to show us the emotions rippling across her calm exterior. For the most part, though, Coppola maintains a comfortable distance from her actors. The movie feels like it was made by Woody Allen in his glory years, a sincere compliment on my part. (Don’t like Allen anymore? Pair this movie with Marriage Story for an exceptional double-bill.)
The plot of the movie is simple, but layered. Laura’s husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) arrives home from a long flight and kisses her in bed. He stops abruptly, as if surprised at what he is doing, and quickly falls asleep. Laura thinks something is up, but writes it off as a combination of jet lag and Xanax. Later, she finds a women’s toiletry bag in Dean’s luggage, to which he explains as was only helping out his assistant Fiona. She couldn’t fit the bag into her carry-on, so he offered to stash it in his luggage and give it to her later.
Laura isn’t quite satisfied with his explanation, and confides everything to Felix when he calls. Felix, having cheated on Laura’s mother years ago, thinks he can help Laura discover if Dean is having an affair. After meeting several times over drinks to review Dean’s behavior, Felix shifts into spy mode. He has Dean photographed eating lunch in his office, which of course proves nothing. Laura searches Dean’s phone for incriminating text messages, but finds next to nothing. Felix believes the absence of incriminating evidence is proof of something, and he takes his spying up a notch.
During their clandestine meetings, Jones plays the straight man to her father’s “worldly insight” into the behavior of men and women. She glares at him over lunch when he explains that men cheat because they are wired to propagate the species. Laura knows what her father tells her as fact is really just BS, rationalizations men employ when they are unfaithful. Even though she doesn’t agree with his philosophy, or his behavior, she still loves him. She’s like every adult who is stunned to find that they have somehow swapped places with their parents, and have become the responsible adult while their parents become more childish. As played by Bill Murray, Felix is a chauvinist, but he’s a lovable chauvinist. He’s at an age where people forgive his sexist remarks and behavior. It’s difficult to tell what Laura finds more incredulous, that her father still hits on women half his age, or that they are OK with it.
For most of the movie, Laura goes along with her father’s antics, and for his part, Felix is a supporting father. He buys her expensive roses for her birthday and treats her to a sundae at 21. (Their table at 21 isn’t any table: it’s the one where Bogart proposed to Bacall.) He treats her to lunch and takes her to a private party where they can look at a Monet. He watches his grand-kids when Laura asks him to, and they adore him. When Felix decides that it’s time to do some in the field reconnaissance on Dean, he spares no expense. First they spy on him, watching him with field glasses while they eat caviar in an antique roadster. Later, when Dean travels to Mexico on business, Felix whisks Laura off to stay at his villa, which happens to be next door to where Dean is staying.
The villa where Felix takes Laura is amazing. Everything looks vibrant and alive. Even Laura ditches her mom-clothes for a yellow dress. Laura finds her father serenading people in the bar, echoes of Murray’s karaoke in Lost in Translation. Laura asks Felix why he cheated. She listens to him when he describes how it was a lack of attention that led him to stray, and while she is upset with what he tells her, she doesn’t appear angry with him.
That evening, Laura’s patience wears thin and she decides to confront Dean. Unfortunately, she is caught in Mexico while her husband is en route to New York. She realizes that while her father claims to want to help her figure out if her husband is cheating or not, he also is using the situation as a way for the two of them to go on adventures together. Embarrassed and humiliated, she confronts her father over the way he cheated on his wife and her mother. Jones finally tells her father all of the things she’s been wanting to tell him for years, but hasn’t been able to because he’s always on a charm offensive with her. It’s one of the most dramatically powerful scenes I can remember seeing in any of Coppola’s movies.
Felix’s motives for helping Laura out are complex, and are likely to produce much internet scrutiny. Felix and Laura don’t have much in common besides family. She’s a writer and he was an art dealer. Using her husband’s possible infidelity as a way to bond with his daughter seems like an odd choice, but it does provide a way for Felix to stay in touch with his daughter and share the finer elements of his life with her. From a cynical point of view, Laura’s situation does provide Felix with a way to ingratiate himself into her life and play amateur detective at the same time. He doesn’t really care if they catch Dean in the act, so long as the two of them have fun doing it. On another level, I felt that Felix wanted to spend time with his daughter any way he could, so that he could try to make up for his cheating on her mother many years ago.
Even the little, throw-away things in the movie were done with care. There’s a reoccurring bit about how Laura hasn’t been able to whistle since she gave birth. Of course, Felix is a master whistler. And how Felix seemingly knows everybody in the city, even the father and grandfather of the traffic cop who pulls him over. And how Laura, fighting writer’s-block, spends time making labels for her folders instead of writing. (Coppola’s secret super power apparently is turning beautiful women like Scarlett Johansson and Rashida Jones into frumps.)
As I mentioned at the outset of this review, On the Rocks is very funny. The theme of infidelity, both historical and imagined, does give the movie a dark edge, but Coppola keeps things light. The dialog is sharp and witty, and Bill Murray is a national treasure. Rashida Jones gives a performance that should elevate her above being a comedic second-banana. Marlon Wayans is also good here as well, playing the workaholic husband who is too busy and distracted to not be suspicious. (When greeting your spouse at a party, a fist-bump is never the right choice.) The movie is exceptional, and any recognition it ultimately earns is well deserved. Include it in the time capsule of good things from 2020.