‘On the Rocks’: Bill and Sofia’s Excellent New York Adventure
Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (in theaters now; it starts streaming on Apple TV+ on October 23rd), is in many ways a straightforwardly neurotic New York comedy — albeit one run through the stylishly lensed, muted discontent familiar to this director’s work. It’s a little zany, a little blue, emotionally jagged, adventurously all over the place. If you’re a romantic, though, the movie’s inciting incident — the bomb that detonates all the problems to come — probably plays like something closer to a scene out of a horror movie.
Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) are a handsome young couple well-off enough to afford a family-size SoHo apartment. She’s a writer; he’s a rising star in tech who knows, to the day, how many followers his company’s account has gained on Instagram. They have a kid who’s still stroller-age. He, being the head of a startup that’s off to a dizzying start, is often out and about traveling on business. She, being a writer, is the one stuck back in New York playing stay-at-home mom, walking the kids to school, enduring the self-obsession of her fellow Manhattanite parents, making sure the kids don’t float off into space. All of this despite the mounting pressures of an upcoming deadline for her book.
One night, Xanaxed and groggy from a flight back to New York City from London, Dean arrives home, collapses on the bed next to his wife, and starts to nuzzle and kiss her. She stirs awake, happy to see him, and says, “Hi.” Dean stops and gives her a confused look, then hits her with a deflated flash of recognition. “Oh,” he says. “Hi.” And passes out. The second strike comes the next morning, when Laura finds a bag of toiletries in Dean’s suitcase that is distinctly girlish and very obviously not Dean’s. It is also, equally obviously, not Laura’s — nor is the body oil she finds when she opens it.
That’s bad. But in truth, the damage had already been done the night before. Laura’s mind had already been flooded with questions, and those questions are what drive her through the rest of the movie. Who did Dean think he was kissing last night? Because it sure wasn’t her. And what’s with that reaction — “Oh”? The undistilled, chopped-liver disappointment of it. She’s his wife!
On the Rocks kicks off, in other words, by cracking open a sinkhole of desperate questions, dangerous suspicions, and comically bad choices beneath what otherwise appears to be a stable, loving marriage. Not that things were perfect. Plain, uncomplicated happiness for women — particularly married, well-off women — is not exactly a trademark of Coppola’s work. And Laura arrives with all the hallmarks of a Coppola heroine. She’s a woman with everything she needs, materially speaking, who is nevertheless visibly unsatisfied. What is often mistaken for mere bourgeois ennui in Coppola’s films is, here as elsewhere, a more specific ailment: privilege that isn’t quite paying off, a good life that doesn’t really feel so good.
That’s in large part because of Laura’s other baggage. Baggage that arrives charming but gimlet-eyed, smooth with splash of venom. Baggage manifest in the form of a man named Felix: Laura’s father, played with incredible wit and cucumber-cool misogyny by Bill Murray. He is as attractive as he is repulsive. And he is, as this movie shows, a powerful force in Laura’s life. Sure, she has other problems. She is uncertain of where she fits into the life of her husband, cheating or no; her book isn’t going well; conversations with other women — more visibly “cool” women — leave Laura feeling alien. Still, somehow, these roads — Laura’s general lack of sense of where she fits into her own life — seem to point back to Felix.
On the Rocks is a movie about a mistake: Not Dean’s, but rather Laura’s. Because she asks her father for advice on what to do about Dean. Hilarity, of the cringing, ridiculous variety, necessarily ensues. Felix, who’s 76 and very much stuck in his was, is the kind of man who — old-school player that he is — calls his “kid” with equal parts affection and sincere diminishment. This is a man who freely flirts with, practically harasses, younger women in front of his daughter, who openly discourses on the evolutionary explanation for why men prefer women of a certain age and size and shape of ass. “Can’t you ever just act normal around any woman?” Laura asks him over lunch, to which her father replies, referring to a waitress, “She’s a ballet dancer. They love to be complimented.” Oh dad, you kidder.
It’s worth saying outright that Felix seems jealous of Laura’s husband. Certainly he has a “men are men” lens on the world and, accordingly, figures Dean is cheating because men cheat. Because he, Felix, cheated. Hence what follows. The plot of On the Rocks is largely concerned with what happens when Laura enlists her father (or does he enlist himself?) in the hunt for answers about Dean. Plenty of bad choices are made. But what matters to this movie aren’t the plot points of their adventure so much as the why. What matters is that, after having left Laura’s mother many years ago to live the international player’s life — after proving to be an awful model, for young Laura, of what a father and husband can and should be — Felix is suddenly waryingly eager to be involved. Has he ever been this gung-ho about his daughter in his life? From Jones’s performance, one gathers not.
The power of Coppola’s film, and of Murray’s performance in particular, is that the answers to this why stack up with more and more implication and complication as the movie proceeds, without the movie overly pronouncing its intentions. Instead, Coppola proceeds as she usually does: with the veneer of a light touch in the construction of her scenes, and an attention to her characters’ lifestyle that never bleeds into self-seriousness. Visually, her work here isn’t as overtly stylish as it has been in the past. But the psychological swings she manages are canny and precise, informed — this being a comedy in form, if not always content — by the power of a quiet punchline. (Jenny Slate, as a motor-mouthed parent Laura cannot stand, is a pleasurably loud addition to the muted Coppola universe; she’s to this movie what Anna Faris’s karate-chopping movie starlet was to Lost in Translation.)
The question that drives this movie forward isn’t that of Dean’s possible infidelity, but rather of Felix’s intentions. Why does he suddenly care so much about the happiness of his now fully-adult, unhappily married daughter? Murray’s disarming wisdom and charm, anchored in a movie that keeps its plot slim and its best scenes robust, bump heads against the things that make his character despicable. The movie is all the more prickly and rich for having a man whose displays of power over women gross us out even as his personality, that smooth talking confidence, reels us in as effectively as the Sirens. Felix’s intentions, Murray shows us, have a little to do with his age and a bit more to do with the accompanying regret, even if he never quite confesses to it. The man knows that he set his daughter up. A man such as this, certain that daughters will ultimately marry men like (but of course lesser than) their fathers, accordingly has reason to believe that, when it comes to the promise of a happy marriage with a good man, his daughter is fucked.
Is it also possible that race is on Felix’s mind? Race — that unspoken subject, at least in this movie. There’s a scene here that doesn’t work for just that reason. It involves the police. The problem with the scene isn’t so much its sense of how a man as entitled and well-connected as Felix might react to being pulled over — that is to say, by having the upper hand and wielding it shamelessly — but rather in its sense of the way Laura might react to it all. Laura’s mother — Felix’s ex-wife — is black. Her husband is black. (And, to the point about marrying one’s father, there’s some delicious irony in that fact.) Yet race is the one potential thing on Laura’s mind that On the Rocks potentially shortchanges. You believe the “Oh, Dad” bit when it comes to Felix talking about a woman’s ass, because, frankly, he’s always that guy. Cops? Well, that’s different territory. The feelings Laura would plausibly have about all of this are notably absent. And so are Dean’s. The plot of this movie boils down, in some ways, a white guy’s not-totally-justified suspicions of his daughter’s black husband. Does the movie know it? A glimmer in Wayans’s eye late in the movie, one of those looks that seem to summarize a thousand conflicting feelings at once, suggests that if the movie doesn’t totally own up to what might be going on here, Dean is most certainly not in the dark.
On the Rocks proves far wiser, and somehow diverting, as a portrait of a father’s clear but uncomfortable love for his daughter. By the end you may feel encouraged to recall the beginning, when, before we even see a single image, before we know anything about who Laura and Dean are, Felix reveals to us who he is. “And remember,” we hear him say. “Don’t give your heart to any boys. You’re mine — until you get married. Then you’re still mine.” In everything that follows, Felix proves how thoroughly he means this. The movie doesn’t redeem him, exactly. But there are lessons — for Felix and viewers both — in excavating just what it means.
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