- A24 Films
Sofia Coppola has spent most of her 20-year career as a filmmaker exploring worlds with lush textures: the dreamlike suburbs of The Virgin Suicides; the opulent court of royal France in Marie Antoinette; the candle-lit Southern gothic vibe of The Beguiled. That's what makes the opening scene of On the Rocks so perfect in evoking exactly that sensibility, as newlywed couple Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) escape from their reception to go for a romantic dip in a massive, luxurious pool. And that's also what makes Coppola's earth-bound approach to the narrative that ensues—as she cuts directly from that impetuous pre-honeymoon moment to Laura as a busy mother of two children—so affecting, as On the Rocks tells a story of a woman wondering if swooning romanticism is gone from her life forever.
Coppola tells that story not primarily through Laura's relationship with Dean, but instead her relationship with her father, Felix (Bill Murray), a wealthy, semi-retired art dealer with a larger-than-life personality. As Laura begins to worry that Dean is having an affair, she makes the mistake of sharing that suspicion with Felix, who dives headlong into the self-appointed role of detective trying to find evidence of Dean's infidelity.
That premise easily could have been used as the basis for broad comedy, and On the Rocks occasionally dips its toes into those waters. A high-speed pursuit of Dean's taxi in Felix's sports car turns into an attempt by Felix to schmooze his way out of a ticket with the police officer, and a jaunt to Mexico to shadow Dean's business trip results in both predictable and unpredictable embarrassments. Coppola is nobody's idea of a farceur, but her lighter touch works to keep the focus on the interpersonal dynamics.
Those dynamics work because of the richness Coppola brings to her two principle protagonists. Murray and Coppola previously collaborated on one of his finest roles, in 2004's Lost in Translation, but here the filmmaker gives Murray a completely different kind of high-life-living character to work with. Instead of starting with the expected notion of Felix as distant and inattentive, his misadventures in sleuthing with Laura providing an opportunity for them to bond, we get a chance to see his kindness with both Laura and his granddaughters—even as we also see his inveterate flirtatiousness and learn the details of his own marital infidelities. It's a portrait of a peculiarly male psychology: someone who reveres the women in his family, and fumes at the idea of his daughter being mistreated, while being exactly the kind of guy who made some other father feel that way.
On the Rocks could have made Laura's arc all about coming to terms with her father's behavior, and how it shaped her expectations for how men behave—and it's certainly at least in part about that. But Coppola also wants to tell a simpler story about women wrestling with how to be a sexy wife, and a devoted mother, and a creative individual trying to have her own professional identity. While "can she have it all" isn't exactly a fresh question, Coppola pokes at it gently, allowing Jones to show how Laura moves through her day of kid-related chores and writer's block—as she attempts to work on a book—with patience and low-key frustration. It's one of the film's goofiest gags when Laura's rare attempt at taking a nap is interrupted by a Roomba slamming into the walls of her bedroom; even when something else is doing the chores, she can't get a break.
There are bound to be reactions to On the Rocks calling it a relatively minor work in Sofia Coppola's oeuvre, simply because of a more simply satisfying narrative thrust with a less showy hand behind the camera; if you had plunked me down in front of this movie with no prior knowledge of its provenance, I might have confidently proclaimed it the latest film by Nicole Holofcener. But there's a lot of heart in this father-daughter love story, one that recognizes the messiness of trying to be in a family. There's nothing wrong with telling that kind of story with your feet firmly on the ground.