October 14, 2020


Cocktail hour: ‘On the Rocks’

By Luke Goodsell

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones star in On the Rocks. Image courtesy Apple TV+

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones are a formidable duo in Sofia Coppola’s new film

No one captures the anxiety of limbo quite like Sofia Coppola. A cinema lived in the psychic drift of hotel bars, moving cars and soft-dissolving teenage diaries, her work has made her an outlier in modern American filmmaking, despite hailing from one of its premiere dynasties; she’s the outsider’s insider, unmoored in rarified worlds that otherwise appear perfect. In the writer-director’s breezy but soulful new feature On the Rocks – starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as a father and daughter bonding over a marriage crisis – even the ostensible comfort of family becomes a space for emotional unrest.

With her crisp Charvet button-ups and blazers, Laura (Jones) is Coppola’s latest pseudo-avatar, a New York author on the cusp of 40 who starts to suspect that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans, nicely underplaying), with whom she shares two young daughters and an enviable Soho loft, might be cheating. You can’t blame her: not only is he constantly away on business and flirting with a leggy colleague in leopard print (Jessica Henwick), but Laura is herself the progeny of the world’s greatest cad – her playboy father Felix (Murray), a downtown gallery big shot who’s gone through as many women as he has art sales.

No sooner has Laura confided her troubles in her dad than he’s magically swept back into her life, like Mary Poppins in a flat cap and Alfa Romeo convertible, a little too giddy at the prospect of tailing Dean around the city and catching him in flagrante. Felix is the kind of guy who deadpans Neanderthal bits about mankind’s need to hunt and mate as a cover for his own infidelities. “Men were attracted to adolescent females because they were easier to catch,” he jokes, served with Murray’s irony and relish. Like Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) in Coppola’s other bittersweet ode to fatherhood, Somewhere (2010) – a womanising actor who gazes upon pole dancers and his teenage daughter with equal ennui – Felix can’t help but hit on every waitress, after-school ballet instructor or pregnant bystander a fraction of his age, even as he dotes on an adult daughter he still calls “Shorty”. Men. Of course he thinks Dean is cheating.    

Murray and Jones, who shared a scene in Coppola’s Netflix throwaway A Very Murray Christmas (2015), are swell company, whistling and warbling and cooking up crackpot schemes as they chase Dean across Manhattan like they’re in some gumshoe mystery – complete with caviar-stocked stake-outs, vintage car chases and daddy-daughter martinis (Coppola has cited The Thin Man as an inspiration, and there are certainly traces of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s pre-Code antics to be found here.) As ever, Murray is a gas lampooning his latest blithely entitled rogue – he’s a grayer, cuddlier version of his ring-a-ding-ding persona in Lost in Translation (2003), his first collaboration with Coppola. Meanwhile, Coppola, both enchanted and bemused, gives us a gauzy tour of high-end hotel bars and stuffy art parties that afford a wry dimension to her film’s punning title, her characters’ exploits lovingly set to a cocktail-hour score heavy on Johnny Mercer and Blue Note records. (It’s fitting that a film starring the daughter of another American pop mogul and ladies’ man, Quincy Jones, should have such a jazzy soundtrack.)

This dizzy, romantic New York brings Coppola full circle to the childlike lens of her filmmaking “debut”, her script for father Francis’s 1989 short Life Without Zoë, in which a 12-year-old girl lives in an expensive hotel, largely sans parents, and the world seems a cosmopolitan playground of international drifters. In On the Rocks, bedrooms can still feel like hotel suites, where listless Roombas rove like black Ferraris lapping the desert. There’s an ease to this world, goosed by money, where ladies’ afternoon tea in the Hamptons may as well be East Coast Versailles (Laura’s mother is played by the forever chic Alva Chinn, star of a groundbreaking Paris fashion show), and the casually diverse family offers a utopian glimpse of  American domestic life. Only once is the bubble punctured by a glimpse of contemporary social irony, when Felix chummily talks his way out of a ticket for reckless driving, having been pulled over by the NYPD – a scene played for laughs but which is unintentionally haunted by the spectre of white privilege. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura remarks, astonished but not exactly surprised, as “New York’s finest” swoon over Felix like starstruck fans.

It’s a testament to Murray, and just how well he works with Coppola, that audiences might be charmed by this distorted worldview. Social media has so ruinously overexposed the legend of “Bill Murray” that it’s easy to forget how compelling he can be, and how Coppola, who all but minted his so-called late-career “prestige” with Lost in Translation, is able to mine the full scope of his complicated appeal. She pushes him to explore new shapes – recall his eye-opening mirror scene in Translation, which felt like Murray seeing himself for the first time – and, in turn, he nudges her outside the comfort zone of her sometimes hermetic universes; they’re in perfect symbiosis, like a real-life dad and daughter goofing on the town. Together they quietly turn the drollness in on itself, suggesting the sadness behind the easy charm and dad jokes, and unraveling the myth of the lovable playboy.  “You have daughters, and granddaughters,” Laura finally snaps at the film’s (and what, for Coppola, nearly feels like a career’s) watershed moment, “so you’d better start figuring out how to hear them.”

These father figures, indulged actors and lost boys form a fascinating through line in Coppola’s now-20-year feature filmography; for a director so associated with the feminine, she has an often-overlooked, consistently perceptive grasp of the male perspective (is it really any wonder, given she began her movie career by literally playing a boy born into la famiglia mafiosa?) Some of her work’s most revealing passages, from the adolescent frustrations in The Virgin Suicides (1999) to the melancholy identity crises of Somewhere, are the result of Coppola’s empathy for drifters, regardless of gender; her willingness to embrace contradictions of character, to lean into life’s essential enigma, has long been one of her artistic strengths.

It’s why On the Rocks isn’t too concerned with the trivialities of who is or isn’t cheating, or why Jenny Slate’s hyper-yappy supporting character – a single mum desperate for relationship “closure”, who’d be the protagonist of a lesser relationship comedy – is relegated to a running gag for tonal contrast. Coppola eschews the tedium of moral scrutiny to find wisdom in flaws – an old-soul intuition that has sometimes been dismissed as overly ambivalent, or as a failure to properly interrogate its subjects. Murray gets it. It’s all in the twinkle.

And the film finds Coppola working her way toward some kind of equilibrium, at peace with those contradictions and reconciling the restlessness that has run, like echoes across space, through the lives of all of her characters. There’s a moment here, brief but very moving, in which Laura wakes on a beach in the exact pose with which Lux Lisbon met the dawn in The Virgin Suicides, all those decades ago – only this time, it’s not to the cold light of an empty high-school stadium and earthly purgatory, but to something new, strangely mature, maybe even a little hopeful. It feels like Coppola is home.


On the Rocks premieres on Apple TV+ on October 23.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


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