movie review

On the Rocks Is a Light Comedy About Some Heavy Feelings

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks
Rashida Jones and Bill Murray are a daughter and dad who turn up some repressed familial pain playing amateur detectives in Sofia Coppola’s new film. Photo: Apple TV+

This review originally ran on September 30, 2020, but we are republishing it as the movie heads to streaming on Apple TV+.

On the Rocks, the new movie from Sofia Coppola, has the premise of a mild-mannered sitcom and a heart so incongruously wounded that you might leave it wanting to gently talk up the benefits of therapy. It begins and ends positioned as a mere wisp of a thing about a woman named Laura (Rashida Jones) who lives in a loft in Soho with two daughters and a husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans). Laura’s starting to suspect that Dean, who’s been traveling a lot for the company he recently founded, has been cheating on her, and so she calls on her gadabout father, Felix (Bill Murray), for commiseration and advice. After all, Felix had an affair and left her mother back when Laura was growing up, so he should know. Felix is all too delighted to have a chance at playing infidelity consultant — “Can you just act a little less excited about this? Because this is my life, and it might be falling apart,” his daughter complains — and soon the two are bouncing around Manhattan and then hauling off to a Mexican resort in hopes of figuring out if Dean is sleeping with his co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a lark, and not a terribly engaging one, but then there are all these massive unprocessed emotions poking out from below the surface of the story like icebergs that have to be frantically navigated around. Laura’s on the cusp of turning 40, and midlife malaise is guiding what happens at least as much as worry about her relationship with her husband is (“I don’t know what women get plastic surgery,” Felix muses helpfully after informing his daughter that “a woman’s at her most beautiful between the ages of 35 and 39”). Fiona may be young and beautiful, but she’s also unencumbered, free to give her full focus to one thing while Laura is split between shepherding the kids around, failing to write the book she sold, and trying to make the most of the rare moments she has alone with Dean. As she trudges down the sidewalk in her chic nautical stripes and her Strand tote bag, pushing a high-end stroller, you can sense the degree to which she feels flattened into a role of semi-invisibility. Coppola, an auteur who’s been devoted over her career to exploring different facets of girlishness, has crafted a lightly depressive elegy to the quality — a story about someone who realizes she’s crossing beyond its insulating, stifling borders and wondering what, exactly, is on the other side. What else is there to do but seek sanctuary with Dad?

If Murray, in Lost in Translation, was playing a temporary suitor as father figure to Scarlett Johansson, here he’s playing a father as substitute suitor, squiring his little girl around town when her husband’s too busy, and gifting her with a thoughtful present for her birthday after that husband gives her an unsentimentally practical one. But it’s not Laura’s marriage or, for that matter, her career that are the true drivers of the movie. Her relationship remains in the background, more a concept than a nuanced reality, and the details of her book and ambitions regarding it are never discussed. The more time Laura spends with Felix, a chaotically outsize figure who whisks her away to impromptu boozy lunches and insists on taking her out to the ‘21’ club for her birthday, the more it becomes clear that he’s the one she’s really fretting about. Or, rather, him and everything he’s come to represent to her about who gets to leave and to start over, and who stays behind, picking up the toys on the floor and feeling like romance and gallantry are forever behind her.

Felix, played by Murray with a careless charm that’s as familiar as it is still effective, is someone who appears to glide through life without exerting any visible effort. He’s a successful art dealer who habitually flirts with every woman he sees, and who knows the name of every server and maître d’ and, as he demonstrates in the most memorable scene in the movie, every cop in the city, too. Doors open for him, and people turn his way like plants toward the sun, and as much as she tries to pretend otherwise, Laura (played by Jones like a living expressionless face emoji) craves his attention, too. He just seems to live in a more vivid, colorful New York than she does, an older and cooler version of the city in which you can sit at the table at which Humphrey Bogart proposed to Lauren Bacall and eat caviar while sitting outside the Soho House in a convertible spying on your son-in-law.

On the Rocks feels, for a Coppola movie, unusually drab, though at least some of that’s by design. The life that Laura and Dean share is laid out in precise, exacting details that are destined to enrage anyone who’s ever taken issue with the director’s tendency to tell stories about the rich before. Their home is a $4 million apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows in the back and a “Bernie 2016” sticker on the door. It’s an existence rooted in wealth but presented as mundanely middle class — which reflects how it feels to Laura, who sees herself as reduced to being another mom in the school drop-off line, drained of vitality compared to her father, whose existence is touched by magic. On the Rocks isn’t a great movie, but it’s one overflowing with feelings that it tries to squash into something tidier. Among them are fear of forever being scarred by a father who up and left, anger at how easily he still indulges his impulses while she’s trapped behaving sensibly, and a broader resentment at how aging can differ for men and women. If it’s difficult to reconcile those raw-edged emotions with the pat conclusion On the Rocks arrives at, it’s because the film never really manages to do that either.

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On the Rocks Is a Light Comedy About Some Heavy Feelings