Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Bill Murray
During the rounds for The Beguiled, the whiteness of Sofia Coppola’s cinema became part of The Discourse. Though persons of colour have played minor or supporting roles here and there in her work, it was fair criticism – especially considering that film’s setting – and one that the director may have taken to heart. On The Rocks centres a non-white couple. It opens with Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) getting married, before flashing through those first few years together. Pretty soon they have two young children and the bloom of early married life has started to fade. Living in New York, Laura writes from home and Dean is a successful businessman. So successful, in fact, that his absence is creating its own negative space in the relationship.
Enter Laura’s wily jet-setting father Felix (Bill Murray), who stokes Laura’s fears that her husband is straying from the flock. Felix – a rougish, well-to-do art dealer who kamikaze’d his own family through infidelity – has particular views on the relationships between men and women, using primal imprinting and the law of the jungle to excuse his own habits, and by extension those of all men. It’s just nature, shorty. Laura would like to think better, but Dean’s actions are suspicious and she starts to worry that her father might be on to something.
On The Rocks is a delight. It’s frothy and funny and it seems deceptively simple and light (in spite of Laura’s escalating fears). Yet there’s quite a bit going on here, particularly for Coppola when viewed against her filmography as a whole. Once again Murray is cast in a role that woozily mixes his charismatic potential as a lover with a more fatherly sense of protectiveness and affection. Perhaps even more-so than in Lost in Translation, his innate Murrayness is allowed to shine through, and one wonders to what extent his scenes feature ad-libs that detour affably from Coppola’s deftly written script.
Coppola’s affection for finding poetry in isolation continues apace here. As with 2010’s Somewhere, there’s tension about getting older, losing the spark of youth, and feeling the new distances from others than come with those concerns. Laura may feel concerned about turning 40 in the next couple years, but she also sees the age in her father’s face, and On The Rocks has an underlying tenderness about making the best of time with aging parents. Laura disagrees with her father’s craven and simplistic outlook on the sexes, but she’ll tolerate it and even indulge his madcap conspiracy theories in order to simply be with him.
And while this configures the film as a father/daughter buddy-movie, there’s still a palpable sense of isolation connected to space that dominates all of Coppola’s work. Be it suburban Michigan, Tokyo, Versailles, LA or the deep south, Coppola has a way of framing her protagonists as psychologically disconnected from their surroundings. And while On The Rocks also plays as a wonderful love letter to New York, Laura ultimately has to leave in order to ‘come back’ and find a new equilibrium.
The majority of the film, however, is NY through-and-through. For a man of Felix’s proclivities, this frequently means bars and restaurants and, in one joyously captured sequence, a nighttime scamper across town in his convertible (part of another of his half-brained plots to ‘tail’ Dean). With Covid still a fierce concern in many parts of the world (here and in the US especially), On The Rocks suddenly inhabits a strangely nostalgic biome; as though Coppola is romancing ‘the old normal’ as opposed to our present unending dislocation. That cannot have been the intention at the time of filming, but its still a very potent part of the mix here.
While her film does centre a POC couple (and their friends), Coppola seems – quite wisely – to understand that her voice isn’t theirs. Laura and Dean and their troubles are universal and the subject of race never comes up in the film. It’s immaterial. Instead, this is about familial interactions, be they marital or patriarchal. Dean isn’t just a husband but a father, after all.
Murray plays his part to perfection but, as with Lost in Translation, it’d be a shame if his largess negated the often brilliant work of those around him. Jones is wonderful here. Her Laura has shades of the previous women that Coppola has focused on. She has the same downward-casting eyes as Dunst, the same resigned intelligence as Johansson sometimes affords us. This, mixed with an open-hearted quality that makes her Laura feel vulnerable. Wayans, meanwhile, doesn’t get a lot of screen time as Dean, but he’s a minor revelation, especially toward the end of the picture. I’ve only ever encountered him in hyperactive goofball mode before, even with the Coens. On The Rocks showcases a side of him I previously hadn’t known existed, and for that I’m thankful.
The light playfulness of this movie is both a blessing to it and a curse. A blessing in the sense that, during such fraught times, it feels so valuable to receive a gift like this one. A curse in the sense that it’s deft performances, writing and direction with likely be shrugged off or overlooked precisely because of how comfortably these things are presented to us. With its very small release, naff promotional artwork and middle class dramatic stakes, On The Rocks is likely to end up one of the lesser celebrated films of Coppola’s career, when actually its her best work in at least a decade and one of the most giving pictures of the year.
With the tinkle of ice, I raise my glass to her. For those of us who vibe with it, this is one to cherish.