NYFF: Sofia Coppola’s new comedy is her lightest film yet, but it’s also an honest self-portrait of an artist struggling with domesticity.
Don’t be fooled by the dusky seduction of its wedding night prologue: “On the Rocks” is far and away the least cool thing that Sofia Coppola has ever made. That’s not a criticism so much as a contextualization. If the perfume ad prelude cocoons you inside the same gauzy softness that made “Lost in Translation” so entrancing, “Marie Antoinette” so tactile, and “Somewhere” so tenderly siloed within itself, it only does so in order to cut a sharp contrast into the domesticity that follows. That’s when this fizzy champagne cocktail of a film jumps a few years forward, landing in the kind of marriage where the waters have become just a bit too calm for the people swimming in them to feel safe.
Laura (Rashida Jones) is a successful Manhattan author who’s hovering around 40 and struggling to reconcile her identity as an artist (Boundless! Unpredictable! Sexy!) with her new-ish role as a mother of two (anchored… chaotic… sexless). She starts casting some panicked looks to the shore after her husband Dean comes home from one of his constant business trips all clouded on Xanax and seems to confuse her for someone else as they kiss. The next morning, she finds another woman’s perfume in his toiletries. Hmm.
It’s probably nothing, but this is one of those marriages where there’s just enough distance between two people for a little imagination to wedge its way into the gap. The only thing that stops Laura from having a full-on freak out is that she doesn’t seem to realize she’s in a Sofia Coppola movie, or that she’s a clear stand-in for a filmmaker whose body of work often sees marriage as the purgatorial first step in someone’s path towards her own self-understanding. It’s a Bressonian prison for a woman escaped (not for nothing, but the happiest marriage in Coppola’s first six films is between Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI).
In fairness to Laura, she doesn’t quite fit the profile of a typical Coppola heroine, and her life doesn’t totally resemble the stuff of a typical Coppola movie. For one thing, there are Black people in it. As Laura, Jones — whose implosive poise and casual ability to throw on a Radarte sweatshirt like it’s from the Gap make her a natural proxy for her director — while Dean is brought to life by a subdued Marlon Wayans, excellent in an aloof but full-bodied performance that reaffirms Coppola’s understated genius for outside-the-box casting. (James Woods is almost as good in “The Virgin Suicides” as he is bad in real life.) Race itself is only an ambient concept in the film, visible but not seen until an old white man weaponizes his privilege to get out of a speeding ticket in a moment that reads more critical than carefree.
For another thing, Laura’s world is uncharacteristically recognizable, even for all of its super-characteristic wealth. She lives in a pre-COVID New York that already seems nostalgic for itself, and on a street that locals will know by sight. There’s a Bernie sticker on her door, and a Greenlight Bookstore tote bag hanging nearby. Her daughters are her best friends, her life is sound-tracked by jazz standards and breezy new Phoenix instrumentals (as opposed to incandescent My Bloody Valentine bangers and a mash of post-punk gems). It’s possible that Laura doesn’t even know Jason Schwartzman. At one point, A24 is even name-checked as a punchline to a sly joke about how out of the loop she’s become.
Laura isn’t thrust into an alien environment that somehow reveals the entropy of her own existence; she isn’t dropped off at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, dowered to the Palace of Versailles, or dragged into the pole dancing room below Paris Hilton’s mansion (even if most viewers will look at the floor-to-ceiling windows of Laura’s massive SoHo apartment with a similar awe and foreignness). The dislocation is coming from inside the house, and the only aspect of Laura’s home that she doesn’t recognize is herself. It isn’t until Bill Murray rolls up in the back seat of a private car — lowering the window with the bleary-eyed suaveness of someone who just came from shooting a whiskey commercial in Japan — that the Coppola of it all really clicks into place.
Courtesy of Apple
Imagine if Bob Harris learned all of the wrong lessons from his time getting “Lost in Translation” and you might have a good sense of how Murray shines as Felix, the caddish perma-bachelor of a father who Laura’s always known and never had. A charming asshole whose ascot is hardly the only thing about him that belongs to a world gone by (there’s also his attitude towards women), Felix swings in like a wrecking ball and starts filling Laura’s head with all sorts of paranoid nonsense about what Dean might be doing.
He’s a devil on his daughter’s shoulder, whispering in her ear that all men are as unreliable as he is, and goading her into accepting the idea that marriage and excitement are mutually exclusive. Maybe then she’ll understand why he never settled down. Why he hits on everything that moves. Why he skipped straight from “childless” to “cool grandpa.” The next things Laura knows, she’s riding shotgun in her dad’s vintage red Alfa Romeo — which crackles like a Roman candle every time Felix revs the engine — and tailing Dean on a series of caviar-fueled stakeouts. “You need to start thinking like a man,” he tells her.
As smooth as a block of ice melting into a martini at the 21 Club, “On the Rocks” reveals itself as a furtive sip of a story about an ultra-chic woman taking stock of her artistic currency at a time when most of her life is spent packing lunches and arranging playdates (thanks for the help, Dean). It’s the first Sofia Coppola movie that feels — if only during its flattest stretches — as if it could have been made by somebody else, and yet at the same time it also plays like the loose and tipsy self-portrait of a maturing filmmaker being visited by the ghost of her greatest success. “On the Rocks” is both as anonymous as the book that Laura’s afraid of writing, and as singular as the books that helped pay for the cavernous apartment where she’s afraid of writing it (whatever they might have been).
Of course, Felix may have paid her way until Laura was able to prove herself, but Coppola has never been shy when it comes to writing about what she knows, and this is very much the work of someone who grew up in the shadow of a larger-than-life figure whose heart she had to share with the darkness. But the “write what you know” approach has always been a double-edged sword for Coppola, whose films are lined with a diaphanous interiority that can make them feel like they were pulled from the soft tissue of your own self-consciousness, but can also make them feel insulated from a world full of real problems. “On the Rocks” is nothing if not a movie by someone who wanted to walk to set and be home for dinner every night.
Courtesy of Apple
Jones — who knows a thing or two about having an iconic father of her own — is a low-key delight to watch as Laura, but the scenes of her futzing around her apartment or feigning interest as a fellow mom (a very funny Jenny Slate) blabbers about the highs and lows of her roller-coaster love life wouldn’t be out of place in one of the TV dramedies that will be streaming alongside “On the Rocks” after the film makes its way to its forever home on Apple TV+. Whenever Felix enters the fray, however, the clocks turn back and suddenly it’s like someone could start doing karaoke to Roxy Music at any moment. (Watch the unbridled joy that “The Beguiled” cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd brings to the scenes of Murray driving through Manhattan, as that little Alfa Romeo rips through our memories of 8th Avenue like Brad Pitt speeding through late ’60s Los Angeles.) He’s an uptown guy with a downtown vibe, his daughter is the opposite, and there’s a combustible alchemy that comes from mixing them together as the movie careens around the island.
The unstable energy shift that comes from Laura exorcising her inner buzzkill is palpable enough to make a lot of the dialogue feel redundant. This is Coppola’s chattiest film to date, and she doesn’t get the same mileage out of stilted cocktail talk as she does from the raw expressiveness of her moods; a Monty Python-esque bit of Felix and Laura backing out of a party says more about their relationship than most of the things they actually say to each other.
But even without the karaoke, Murray is able to make a lot of this material sing. It’s wild to think that the real-life father of six has starred in more films about the absurdity of being a dad (e.g. “Broken Flowers,” “The Life Aquatic”) than he has in movies where he’s actually played one (“Lost in Translation” technically counts, though the children are off-camera and on the other side of the planet). But his freewheeling screen persona has never squared with having a family, and Coppola loves him like a step-dad for that. This is a role that Murray could pull off in his sleep, but he wouldn’t do that here. His performance is familiar but steeped in the bittersweet recognition that Laura is the love of Felix’s life — that he’d rather them shipwreck together than sail apart on their own.
The great strength of “On the Rocks” is that it doesn’t ask Felix (or Murray) to change: It’s a lightly carbonated story about the danger of trying to reverse the tide when life wants you to swim with the currents, and it’s less interested in how people change than it is in what they cling to. That might explain why Coppola strains to contrive a way to wrap things up; why her last film with Murray conveyed a blowout fight in just a few cutting words (“Wasn’t there anyone else there to lavish you with attention?”), while this one fizzles out during a long scene that overwhelms the dénouement it’s meant to tee up, and then ends with a shrug that makes the whole movie feel more tossed off than it was.
“On the Rocks” isn’t destined to achieve the same kind of iconic status as some of Coppola’s previous work. It isn’t disposable, but it also doesn’t offer anything to obsess about, which is a real change of pace for a filmmaker who launched a zillion Tumblrs and Pinterest boards and gave humanity the gif of Emma Watson saying “I wanna rob.” It isn’t an uncool movie, but it isn’t a cool one either, and by the time it winds down with a needle drop that might have you second-guessing that assessment, you might just be as cool with that as Coppola seems to be.
“On the Rocks” premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on Friday, October 2, and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting on Friday, October 23.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.