Movie Review: On the Rocks (2020)

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Having just arrived home from the airport, Dean (Marlon Wayans) parks his suitcase in the master suite and crawls across the bed to tenderly kiss his sleeping wife Laura (Rashida Jones) awake. When her eyes flutter open and she says, “hi,” he abruptly stops. Seemingly puzzled, Dean rolls over to his side of the bed and goes right to sleep as if, Laura suddenly fears, her husband thought she was someone else.

An unsettling incident to be sure and one that makes her hyper-aware of other aspects of her relationship with the devoted father of her two young daughters, as she unpacks Dean's suitcase the next day, Laura is shocked to find a woman's toiletry bag among her husband's belongings, complete with body oil inside. Giving in to her fears about men, women, and monogamy, which were hardwired into her brain since birth as the daughter of the charismatic, larger than life, notoriously unfaithful playboy Felix (Bill Murray), Laura consults her father to get a man's perspective on these incidents and Felix immediately lowers the boom. 

“I think we should follow him.” 

Although she resists this impulse for as long as she can, once this idea has been planted, it begins to take root. And soon, Laura finds herself speeding along the streets of New York City at night in the passenger seat of her father's least inconspicuous vehicle, a cherry red Alfa Romeo convertible that backfires faster than it accelerates.

A breezily sophisticated New York comedy of the kind that we used to see so often in the 1980s, the seventh feature film from writer-director Sofia Coppola finds her embracing decidedly different stylistic terrain than we've seen before in her earlier work. Challenged by legendary screenwriter Buck Henry to write more dialogue than she normally does, “On the Rocks,” is chattier than Coppola's other movies. But in centering on an artistically minded woman struggling to find her way in a society that likes to put labels on us, it's once again a very autobiographical work right down to the fact that like Sofia Coppola, Rashida Jones' Laura is a married writer struggling to tap into her creative voice while also mothering two young girls.

Casting an actress who, as the daughter of Quincy Jones, would certainly understand what it must've been like to grow up with a charming playboy father such as Sofia Coppola's own dad, Francis Ford Coppola, "Rocks" feels very intimate, just like all of her films that immediately invite you into the world as she sees it. A terrific straight woman foil to the attention-grabbing Felix (who is sensationally brought to life by Bill Murray), Jones' Laura keeps her father in check when he flirts with literally every woman who crosses his path before launching into a monologue that leads us right back into the '70s or what Coppola calls the “martini generation.” 

Written expressly for her two leads, although she was hesitant to ever cast Murray in another feature film after the smash success of their 2003 contemporary classic “Lost in Translation” (which was later followed by the 2015 Netflix holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas” that co-starred Jones), he's the natural choice to bring Felix to life. Whether he's serenading Laura and his longtime driver with the Johnny Mercer/David Raskin classic “Laura” or belting out John Tenney and Helen Stone's “Mexicali Rose” to anyone lucky enough to be in the largely empty outdoor Mexican bar that he and Laura journey to on their freewheeling adventure to follow Dean, Coppola knows how to weaponize Murray's magnetism like no other.

Taking Laura to 21 on her birthday in one of many scenes shot in and around New York landmarks, Felix lets it slip that they're sitting at the same table that Bogart used when he proposed to Bacall in the 1940s. And, of course, while the film nerd in us is instantly impressed with this factoid, the longer we think about it, the more we realize that Bill Murray is one of those very special people that only comes around a few times in a generation that – much like Bogart – you expect our ancestors will be talking about 80 years down the line as well.

Culling comedy from everyday life, whether that's in the annoyingly self-involved single mother played by Jenny Slate who monologues at Laura daily at school drop-off and pick-up, or the awkwardness you feel when you're watching your significant other at a party hold court with lots of adoring young members of the opposite sex who look at you like you have three heads, the film builds with wry subtlety.

Eventually growing more contemplative as Project Dean calls up long-dormant feelings involving Felix's infidelity to Laura's mother, the film moves from '80s Stillman, Allen, and Ephron territory into something more akin to Ozu, Antonioni, or Rohmer by the end. Unwilling to fully follow through on the natural progression of the father and daughter's journey – which is more about their relationship than Laura's and Dean's – you get the distinct sense that there's another draft of the script lying around somewhere that took a more somber turn than “Rocks” is ready to commit to in the end.

Still, a fine, frothy film that's perfect for autumn when the weather begins to cool, the mood of the piece feels somewhere between a summer comedy and a thoughtful winter family drama. And although it doesn't quite land the same evocative punch that Coppola's last movie “The Beguiled” – which also dealt with gender roles and power plays – did, "Rocks" is much more substantial than I expected it would be going in. 

Likewise, just as Coppola's first three efforts “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Marie Antoinette” form their own thematic trilogy, “On the Rocks” is a film that would play even more intriguingly in a double feature with Coppola's 2010 drama “Somewhere,” which focused on a young girl trying to connect with her bored, famous, narcissistic father at the Chateau Marmont. A pleasant, mature, and relatable comedy that's much more fun than playing amateur relationship detective with your dad, Coppola's latest film feels like the down-to-earth flipside to "Somewhere"'s airy, yet hypnotizing coin. As distinctly, classically Sofia Coppola as it is quintessentially Bill Murray, "On the Rocks" is one to see.

Note: I viewed a screener of this film – which opens in theaters this weekend – safely from my home. While it's ultimately up to the viewer to decide how they wish to see the movie, I urge you to consider your safety while doing so, as “On The Rocks” will soon be available to all from the comfort of your own home on Apple TV+, starting on Friday, October 23.

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