Note: The writer of this review watched On The Rocks from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
As transitional leaps go, it’s not exactly a tossed femur blipping into a floating spacecraft millennia later. But there’s a cut early into On The Rocks, the new film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, that conveys an instant, momentous emotional jump through space and time. The movie opens on a pair of newlyweds sneaking out of their own reception, giddy and unburdened by responsibility, to go swimming on another floor of the hotel. They’re living spontaneously in the moment, with the endless possibilities of the future sprawling out before them like the pool they’ve mischievously made their own. Yet just as the audience has begun to sink into their romantic reverie—the kind of engulfing punch-drunk haze Coppola’s work so often and so intoxicatingly offers—we’re thrust into a new status quo, the sight of someone wandering an apartment, scooping up discarded toys and clothes. The message is painfully clear in its efficient delivery: However many years have zipped by in a single cut, the once exciting and carefree reality of these characters’ lives now seems as distantly past tense as the dawn of man.
The woman is Laura (Rashida Jones), a writer living in Manhattan. She’s married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), a businessman whose particular field of business is vaguely gestured toward in a flurry of social-media buzzwords and travel plans. They have two daughters, just as Coppola does. And though neither has put the feeling in words, they’re in a rut. That’s not uncharted territory for this filmmaker, who’s spent her whole career extravagantly inflating the nagging dissatisfaction of (mostly) comfortable, wealthy women, hemmed in by the expectations of their parents, spouses, or country. But while life within the gilded cage was at least cosmetically glamorous in Coppola’s earlier bittersweet mood pieces, On The Rocks depicts a less romantic, more mundane discontent. The director has made her own belated leap out of the agony and ecstasy of youth, leaving the dreamy pleasures of The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere to shrink into a blurry dot in the rearview mirror.
That might be a drag (maturity, in life and art, is overrated) if the movie weren’t such a low-key charmer, a casual comedy of midlife restlessness. Its big hook is that Coppola has reunited with Bill Murray, star of her second and probably most beloved film, Lost In Translation. His presence amplifies the sense, thematically if not stylistically, that we’re seeing a kind of spiritual cousin to that rapturous ode to dislocation—a continuation of its questions on how to navigate life’s disappointments and uncertainties. Coppola directed Murray to one of his most soulful performances in Lost In Translation, capitalizing on the melancholy that had begun to creep into his deadpan shtick as surely as the signs of age invading his poker face. In On The Rocks, he plays Felix, Laura’s incorrigible playboy father, still treating every day like a bachelor’s vacation. It’s an irresistible star turn, loose and funny and comfortable, that leans on Murray’s still potent charisma and his present reputation as a carefree celebrity fuck-around, with no loftier aim than amusing himself.
If On The Rocks has a dramatic engine, it’s Laura’s fear that her husband—often away on work trips—may be having an affair with his young assistant. Felix, a lifelong womanizer, only encourages these suspicions. In what sometimes suggests Coppola’s grounded stab at screwball, father and daughter embark on a fact-finding espionage mission, zipping around New York and staking out Dean’s company dinners in a red convertible. (Whether Laura’s concerns are justified is a matter the film keeps ambiguous for a good long while, thanks largely to a carefully unreadable performance by Wayans that resists confirmation one way or the other.) In truth, this infidelity investigation is an excuse, for movie and characters alike, to get Laura and Felix together, sometimes over drinks that slip into serious conversation. Theirs is a fun dynamic with deeper layers of quasi-autobiographical resonance. After all, don’t both Coppola and Jones have rich, famous fathers of their own?
The gauzy sensuality of this director’s past output is missed. On The Rocks is her least transporting film; even its vision of a nocturnal Manhattan, sparkling under the stars, feels a little zapped of wonder. But that makes sense for a movie that’s about the moment in life when all the big feelings of your salad days become inaccessible, youth’s afterglow dimming out. In place of swoony music-video flourishes and eruptions of subjective splendor, Coppola tries out productive repetitions, like the recurring shot of Laura standing in the hallway of an elementary school, having her ear chewed off by a chatty fellow parent (Jenny Slate). The withholding of glorious dream pop needle drops is purposeful, a denial that speaks to Laura’s own thwarted nostalgia for sensation. Which of course doesn’t mitigate a viewer’s desire for it; one Phoenix track over the credits is an insufficient sop in that department. The film hurts for poetic digression: When Murray performs a brief sort-of callback to the karaoke centerpiece of Lost In Translation, you want the moment to stretch into eternity, not cut off so quickly. (Another drawback to getting older: Those once endless parties now seem to end just as they’re getting started.)
“It must be very nice to be you,” Laura notes when her father, in the movie’s funniest episode, sweet talks his way out of a speeding ticket. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he replies. But On The Rocks ultimately treats Felix’s evergreen commitment to joyriding like a defect, sad and maybe desperate. There’s something a little tidy about the resolution, closing a movie of messy emotional confusion on a note of affirmation and maybe even a kind of surrender. But On The Rocks shines brighter in the context of a career, especially in indirect dialogue with Lost In Translation. That film was about having no idea where you’re going. Coppola, who’s now just slightly younger than Murray was when they last collaborated, has made a new one about wondering where exactly you’ve arrived and how you got there. What the movies share is the comforting fantasy of a drinking buddy with charm, jokes, and maybe some wisdom to impart. Who among of us wouldn’t want to go through a life crisis with Bill Murray seated on the other end of the table?