As much as I’m a proponent of female filmmakers, I’ve never much been one for the movies of Sofia Coppola. With On the Rocks, that has changed. I loved the film, and believe it’s one of the best vehicles in Bill Murray’s career. Sometimes his shtick brings attention to itself to such a degree that we become removed from the story or whatever is happening onscreen. Not so in On the Rocks. On the contrary, he gets so far out of his own way, his portrayal brings us all the more into the story. He is an unqualified marvel.
Once again as both writer/director, Sofia Coppola tells the story of overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden toddler parent and writer Laura (Rashida Jones) who comes to believe her husband, workaholic Dean (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair. Enter her art dealer dad Felix (Murray) who believes men are incapable of being monogamous, and has the personal history to prove it. “You have to start thinking like a man”, he explains to Laura He brings caviar on a stakeout. He warbles Gene Autry’s ‘Mexicali Rose’ to strangers in a hotel lobby. He’s a charmer, and a bit slimy, but never so much so that we don’t understand why Laura is drawn to and feels connected to him. Felix wants to partner with Laura to catch Dean in the act, and while he’s trying to keep an open mind, he spends much of the time with his daughter explaining the anthropology behind why men have to ‘spread their seed’. He sounds like a jerk, but the combination of Coppola’s writing and Murray’s layered performance, along with his undeniable charm, make her desire for connection with him entirely plausible.
It’s ‘Adventures with Dad’, directed by the daughter of icon Frances Ford Coppola, one of most lauded filmmakers of all time, starring the daughter of icon Quincy Jones, one of the most lauded composers of all time. They must know a thing or two about fathers that are larger than life.
As a gallery owner myself, I’m always entertained by characters that live and thrive in the art world. They are often completely implausible. There are few ways one can make a living good enough to pay for a brownstone in NYC. Coppola must have done her research. The only dealers that succeed are those constantly on the take the way Felix is, where every event, every gathering, every encounter with an acquaintance, offers the potential for another score, and another sale.
The music, which is largely made up of well-placed crooner classics, adds a delightful sort of cynical, anti-Sleepless in Seattle vibe.
So many women who have complicated, but inexplicably fulfilling relationships with their dads will connect with On the Rocks and see some aspect of their own lives. There’s no question that Felix is trying. He loves his ‘kid’. He’s trying to make up for his mistakes. He’s also exactly who he is, and he can’t and won’t change that. Women will also connect to the one-sided friendship between Laura and Vanessa (Jenny Slate), who singlehandedly embodies all the bullsh*t of girlfriends. “I’m seeing that guy again, but I think it’s ok” is the start of countless conversations after hours of advice has gone unheeded. Vanessa talks incessantly, rationalizing her bad relationship, plowing onward without noticing or listening or picking up any cues. Laura isn’t even a sounding board. Vanessa is talking to herself. It’s a bit tragic, more than a bit funny, and entirely recognizable.
Nearly all of us can relate to at least one of those relationships.
Ultimately, Coppola wants us to know there is love there. It may be complicated, messy, in need of forgiveness moment-by-moment, but the love is always there. At a time when COVID means longterm separation from our parents, and perhaps more time for self-reflection than we ever bargained for, this is a message we can and should take to heart.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.