ON THE ROCKS – Review by Nikki Baughan

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The reteaming of filmmaker Sofia Coppola and star Bill Murray is a tantalising proposition for the many fans of their previous collaborations, such as A Very Murray Christmas (2015) and, of course, Lost in Translation (2003). The two have developed an easy rapport over the years, with Coppola knowing how to let Murray’s charisma shine through without overwhelming everything around him; and that balance, together with the addition of the always-excellent Rashida Jones into the mix, makes On the Rocks a hugely appetising confection.

And while it may not carry quite as much emotional heft as Lost in Translation – which netted Coppola the Best Original Screenplay Oscar – or other of her films like Somewhere (2010) or The Beguiled (2017), it still has plenty of insight about fathers, daughters, the challenges of the creative impulse, and having the courage to find your voice.

That trademark Murray charisma certainly hasn’t diminished in this, his 70th year. His easy comic timing, knack for a devastating one-liner and confident swagger is embedded in the DNA of his character, ageing New York playboy art dealer and incorrigible flirt Felix. And yet, however brightly Murray lights up the screen – and there are many moments of sheer joy, including an impromptu karaoke session in a shoreline bar – Coppola is careful not to let him steal the show. Because while the film’s title may speak to the way the flighty Felix likes to take his liquor, it actually refers to the state in which his more down-to-earth thirtysomething daughter Laura (Jones) finds her marriage, and her life.

A struggling writer, Laura is trying to finish (or, more specifically, start) another novel while parenting two small children and keeping the spark alive in her marriage to Dean (Marlon Wayans, excellent). A neat opening sequence which fades from a trail of discarded clothes on Laura and Dean’s wedding night to Laura picking up a trail of children’s toys some years later gives an early indication of how predictability and routine have replaced that early passion; a familiar scenario. Despite her writer’s block, Laura is content to go with the flow of her life until Dean begins working with attractive new British colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick), and doubts about his fidelity begin to take hold in her overwrought mind.

Reluctantly sharing her concerns with her father leads not to the expected parental reassurances, but to high jinks. Felix – who himself cheated on Laura’s mother many years before, a fact which bubbles under their every interaction until a passionate final reel confrontation – believes Dean (and probably any man) to be capable of similar behaviour, and insists that he and Laura turn private detective.

At first this sees them following Dean around New York City (at one point in an open-top sports car stuffed full of wine and caviar) and then – ridiculously yet somehow understandably – to Mexico, where Dean is supposedly attending a conference. While lifelong raconteur Felix is clearly relishing this adventure with the daughter who is, clearly, the absolute love of his life, he is selfishly, perhaps wilfully, ignorant of the real-life emotional strings he is pulling. We can see that, despite her strong exterior, Laura is crumbling under the weight of holding her life together.

There’s certainly no shortage of films about philandering men and suspicious, devastated women, but this is not Coppola’s focus. She is far more concerned with exploring the impact that domesticity and particularly parenthood have on a woman’s identity. The fact that Dean and Felix are able to march to the beat of their own drum while Laura is entirely hemmed in by her responsibilities gives the film its tempo. Dean attends parties and jets off to Miami; Felix gets top-class service at every bar in the city and uses his undeniable charm to avoid a speeding ticket.

In painful contrast, repeated scenes of Laura giving the kids their breakfast, dropping them at school, listening to fellow mum Vanessa (a scene-stealing Jenny Slate) lament about her stream of bad dates hammer home the point that hers is a life both flattened and restricted by routine.

It won’t be at all surprising to any parent or carer that Laura finds it impossible to carve out the headspace to write in the brief moments she snatches between drop-offs and pick-ups and naps and toddler classes. It’s also not surprising that this creative desert proves fertile ground for those seeds of doubt – about her own abilities, about her attractiveness and her husband’s waning interest – to take root and grow exponentially. What’s clever about Coppola’s screenplay, and what grounds it through all of the Felix-induced mayhem, is that it is careful to remain ambiguous. “What if we find out that Dean is just busy and I’m in a rut,” laments Laura, in a moment of anguished self-awareness.

That Laura spends much of the film – and, one assumes, much of her life – in the looming shadow that Felix casts (not just from his personality, but also from the infidelity that had such an impact on her childhood) gives On The Rocks a knowing autobiographical layer. Coppola herself has built a career being measured against her iconic filmmaker father Francis Ford Coppola; and the fact that Jones has famous parents in musician Quincy Jones and actor Peggy Lipton similarly adds poignancy to her performance.

Coppola, too, is keenly aware that her work will forever be compared to her breakthrough Lost in Translation, and it is no coincidence that flashes of that film are reflected here. Thanks to the appreciative lens of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (who previously worked with Coppola on The Beguiled), a pre-pandemic New York is as exotic and seductive as Tokyo appeared in Lost in Translation back in 2003. Sequences of Murray riding the city streets in the back of a car or singing to a bar full of appreciative drinkers are nods to the fact that Felix could easily be an ageing version of Lost in Translation’s Bob Harris, having relinquished all responsibilities in search of the next party.

Yet Laura is most definitely not like Scarlett Johansson’s twentysomething ingenue Charlotte, who was so beguiled by Murray’s character in Lost in Translation. She is a strong-willed thirtysomething woman who, despite the fact that she becomes somewhat unmoored from her life and caught in the tumultuous wake of Felix’s laissez-faire approach to living, ultimately asserts her own autonomy. Her decisions and mistakes are her own; she is afforded the time and space to learn from them, and to decide where she wants to be.

Similarly, and despite Laura’s long-time-coming diatribe against him and a moment of poignant reflection, at the end of the film Felix remains much the same as he ever was. Like most of Coppola’s work, On the Rocks doesn’t advocate forcing the changing of tides, but instead the skill of navigating turbulent waters while keeping your head above water and your eyes firmly on the horizon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On The Rocks is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for October 15, 2020

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Nikki Baughan

Nikki Baughan is a London-based freelance film critic and features writer. Formerly editor of both Film Review and movieScope magazines, Nikki is currently contributes to various print and online publications, including Screen International, BFI, The List and Film Divider.