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Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Star in "On the Rocks," a Bittersweet Fairytale from Sofia Coppola: Review

 


Sofia Coppola's latest film, On the Rocks, premiered on AppleTV+ on October 23. Being a big fan of the director's previous work, I watched it immediately. But why did it take me so long to write this review? Well, it's a movie that I needed to sit with. I gave it a second watch before I even thought about writing a review. There's a lot at work here and it deserves my time and consideration. But that was not because I was unsure about whether I liked it or not. I knew right away that this low-key comedy was destined to be one of my favorite movies of the year.

Rashida Jones stars as Laura, a writer who lives in a beautiful SoHo loft with her two daughters and her husband (Marlon Wayans), who Laura suspects of having an affair. Her father Felix (Bill Murray, in a performance that reminds you not to take Bill Murray for granted) convinces her that they must investigate her suspicions, sending them off on a fanciful adventure that leads them all over New York and beyond.

The relationship problems of privileged New Yorkers have been the subject of fascination by filmmakers for decades, with Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach among those who have made films exploring the topic. Coppola herself has said in interviews that a major source of inspiration was the Thin Man movies from the '30s, those fizzy comedy-mysteries where murders are solved in between martinis. Something the Thin Man movies have in common with those New York films is a certain verve, a rat-a-tat pace to the proceedings that is seemingly at odds with On the Rocks' undercurrent of melancholy. 

When Coppola told Buck Henry about the premise, he apparently said to her, "Why don't you write some dialogue?" That comment is both hilarious and insightful about what makes this kind of movie new territory for Coppola. The Allens and Baumbachs of the film world are all known for their witty dialogue, but Coppola's strength has always been her visuals. She lets tone and atmosphere take centerstage, dialogue and plot are secondary. So, it should not be surprising that, though there are several amusing lines, the dialogue of On the Rocks never ascends to the dizzying heights of something like Mistress America

I'm not trying to say Coppola has failed by not approximating the rhythm and pace of these other movies. Rather, I think she's deliberately creating something else, something adjacent to screwball comedy but that's more ethereal. The actors leave air between lines of dialogue, and there's a relaxed lilt to the editing. It almost feels like it's a new genre entirely. 

Maybe inventing a subgenre is too lofty an ambition for a movie that a lot of people will think of as slight. And it is a rather modest story, this tale of a father and daughter talking about relationships over cocktails. Felix is an old-school charmer, the type that has to flirt with every woman he comes in contact with, and the generational divide between Felix and Laura's perception of relationships between men and women provides most of the film's thematic marrow. 

The father-daughter dynamic is something Coppola has returned to several times over her career. It was there in Somewhere (2010), her most underrated film. And it was there in Life Without Zoe, Francis Ford Coppola's segment of the anthology film New York Stories (1989) that Sofia wrote with her father when she was a teenager. If you have not seen Life Without Zoe (and there's really no reason to have seen it), it's about a little girl living by herself at the Sherry-Netherland who, amid many other things, reconnects with her father, a famous flautist who's always traveling. 

On the Rocks acts as a sequel of sorts to Life Without Zoe, where the little girl has grown up. She's still susceptible to falling into another adventure with her larger than life father, but she is now able to see him in a more sober light. There's even a scene in On the Rocks where the characters go to the Sherry-Netherland. 

For all its depictions of privilege, when On the Rocks feels most authentic is in its presentation of Laura's different roles. We see her as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, and as an artist, and we see how one area of her life affects all the others. At the start of the film, she feels stuck - by her routine, by her insecurity about her marriage - and the result is she's unable to make progress on her new book. It's not a criticism to say that Jones' performance has a flattened quality to it. It's a rather sensitive articulation of Laura's state of mind. 

Jones and Murray make for a great pair, giving the film's middle stretch a welcome dose of daffiness. Murray, in particular, makes the most of these small comedic moments, whether its hiding behind a plant or walking backwards out of a room.

And since this is a Sofia Coppola movie, there are certain elements her fans have come to expect. The cinematography, by Philippe Le Sourd, is just as dreamy and gorgeous as it was in The Beguiled. Her films always have a killer soundtrack, and this one is no different. The choice of Chet Baker's recordings of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well"? It's like she could see into my soul, or at least my Spotify history. 

On the Rocks is both an attempt by a very interesting director to try something new and also reaffirm what it is she does so well. It's a wistful anecdote of a movie and if that sounds appealing to you, you can stream it right now on AppleTV+.

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