Premise: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.
Sofia Coppola’s films have, regrettably, been one of my biggest film blind spots of the 21st century. Until recently, when I watched her directorial debut (1999’s The Virgin Suicides), I had yet to see any of her films. Suicides revealed an auteur who could confidently write complicated characters in a unique and interesting way. Her latest film, On the Rocks, which is streaming now on Apple TV+, retains those same capabilities but slightly misses the mark on some crucial character work. The film reunites Coppola and Bill Murray, the star of her most successful film, Lost in Translation, for the first time since 2003 (save for a holiday special in 2015). Murray has built up a solid reputation as a comedian-turned-dramatic actor, and while his role here steers more towards comedic relief, he has clearly found a director who can utilize him properly while keeping him from going off the comedic deep end (again, I haven’t seen Lost in Translation, but he was nominated for an Oscar for the role).
Murray ends up in more of a supporting role in On the Rocks, playing second fiddle to Rashida Jones’s Laura, who plays his daughter. Given the prolific actor’s friendly nature, it’s no surprise that he has a natural chemistry with Jones, which is crucial to the film’s two-handed structure. The crux of the film involves Laura’s search for answers regarding her husband’s (Marlon Wayans) shady activities and frequent business trips, which she quickly assumes are the telltale signs of an affair. Murray’s Felix, as a well-connected, playboy, semi-retired art dealer, joins in to be a protective father in order to help her get to the bottom of the matter and find out the truth. Coppola uses this device not only to explore middle-aged complacency, but the dynamics of a daughter’s once-fractured relationship with her estranged father. Felix and Laura embark on various lunches and amateur spy missions, which also serves the double purpose of bonding the pair closer together.
Coppola’s touches regarding Laura’s internal life are among the film’s major successes. Usually clad in loose, unflattering t-shirts, Laura is the quintessential portrait of a mother whose life has been consumed with helping others, rather than herself. Many of the scenes that don’t involve Felix revolve around the daily monotony of a busy mother: dropping off the kids at school, picking up from ballet class, making dinner, reading books before bedtime, etc. In an early scene, Laura sits down to write her still-unwritten book that she’s been putting off for too long; she begins to fidget and rearrange everything on her desk, but doesn’t go so far as to make sure everything is perfectly straight or neatly arranged. Such a small moment goes a long way to establish the inner workings of a character without telegraphing it to the audience (it also helps that Jones doesn’t oversell her character’s stressed-out nature). In the hands of a less confident director, On the Rocks could easily be transformed into another standard mid-life crisis film without any personality or introspection.
While Felix and Laura’s relationship is the film’s greatest asset, it would be nice to get a scene or two where the pair’s relationship prior to the events of the film are explored a little more. Laura makes plenty of references to his absence during her childhood, his messy split with her mother and his philandering ways, but how did those events manifest themselves during her adulthood? He clearly has an established relationship with his granddaughters, but what about his own daughter? It’s not clear if their banter during the film is an aberration in their relationship, or part of a regular routine.
Rashida Jones turns in a great performance, but I kept wondering how exactly her character had grown by the end of the film. What does Laura learn about herself by going through these adventures? What does she learn about her father that she didn’t already know? The conclusion wraps up nicely, and it’s played effectively by both Jones and Wayans, but I found myself wondering where the couple goes from there. The general movie-going audience may be satisfied at how things end, but I couldn’t help but want to see another scene or two to see if any of Laura’s familial dynamics have changed. Maybe, though, that’s what Coppola is trying to say, as many of the best directors have done: real life is messy and most often lived in small chapters. One can begin and end neatly, but we don’t always know the road ahead, despite our best efforts.
On the Rocks is now streaming on Apple TV+.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.