Jones and Murray with a twist of Coppola.
The one thought which kept passing through my mind was just how interesting of a choice On the Rocks was for writer/director Sofia Coppola. Sure, the filmmaker has made a career out of one bold movie after another, but there’s something different about this effort specifically. Maybe it was the general premise of a daughter acknowledging her celebrated father as she finds herself spending a large amount of time with him, perhaps echoing some of the supposed elements from the director’s own life that made the movie stand out. Not many who have seen On the Rocks however are making this assumption. In fact, while some are indeed wondering why Coppola chose to tell this specific story, many are instead sizing up the film’s awards chances; as is the case with most titles released during this time of year. Suffice it to say, On the Rocks is not the kind of heavy-hitting awards-ready fare one would expect given who’s involved. Instead, the film belongs in the category of works which act as that early autumn bridge between blockbusters and Oscar contenders; that special breed of quality filmmaking which includes, at least in this case, a sparkling script and a quality Bill Murray performance.
The harried heroine of On the Rocks is Laura (Rashida Jones), a New York author who enjoys a long, stable marriage to Dean (Marlon Wayans). While she’s content with her career as a writer as well as a wife and mother, Laura begins to feel that the spark has gone out of her marriage. An encounter with her older rich playboy father Felix (Murrary) plants the seed of doubt in her mind regarding Dean’s fidelity. Eager to help his daughter, Felix sets up a series of stakeouts with the pair tailing Dean in an effort to find out the truth.
There’s something of a duality to On the Rocks where its characters and their function within the story are concerned. On the one side there is the character of Laura. One of the most well-written and honestly portrayed comedic female protagonists of some time, Laura is a woman who ostensibly has it all but is still focused on what she’s missing, or rather, what she’s imagining she’s missing. The fact that what Laura is longing for isn’t material or status-based, but rather human and personal, makes her a figure that’s so incredibly real. We see in Laura a woman who is finally realizing she’s at a turning point with her journey as a woman. She’s wrestling with the past and intensely questioning the future. Coppola’s incorporating of Laura’s history is done so in such a sleight-of-hand way. Her fearfulness of Dean’s supposed lack of interest in her calls to a deep fear that she will eventually fall victim to the same fate which befell her mother’s marriage. Meanwhile her carefully measured relationship with her father slowly begins to chip away the more time they spend on their spying adventure until she’s forced to let out how she really feels about Felix and their past as father and daughter. At every turn, Laura is flawed, vulnerable, funny, ethereal and true to both herself and the audience. She is quite honestly one of the best written lead female characters of the year.
The other side of On the Rocks deals with a father’s atonement. So often in films, neglectful parents tend to be shown giving their grandchildren all the love and attention they never gave their own offspring. While there’s a bit of that here, there’s more than just that and a great comedy duo setup at play here between the two main characters. Felix’s involvement in Laura’s life tends to be a come and go, checking in type of relationship. Not a whole lot of background is given right off the bat when it comes to the pair’s parent/child past. But it’s easy to see Felix as the father who was never around until one day he and Laura became estranged. With time comes reflections and revelations, which might explain why Felix’s current presence in his daughter’s life has a sort of Capraesque feel to it in the way he uses charm, adoration and a series of stellar one-liners to relate to his daughter. When he sees the situation Laura is currently in, his proposal of literally stalking her husband is, in his mind, the best way to make up for being the kind of absentee parent he couldn’t help but be. It could be suggested that Felix nurtured the suspicions in his daughter’s mind, allowing him to seize the opportunity and get to know his daughter in a genuine, if admittedly underhanded way. It wouldn’t be surprising if this were in fact the case since Felix is a man who spies on his son-in-law from a chauffeur-driven limousine. But he is also the kind of man who takes his grown daughter out for a hot fudge sundae when she’s at her lowest and cracks one joke after another with no other aim except the desire to see her smile.
Both Jones and Murray are true delights in their own rights and have charmed and wowed audiences repeatedly throughout the years. Their pairing however, is truly inspired. The two feed off of each other’s energies so well, that there’s never an ounce of doubt regarding their believability as father and daughter. Both Jones and Murray are from different schools of acting (she’s luminous but centered, while he’s dry and unpredictable), but the way they read one another’s cues and react to them gives On the Rocks its truest pleasure. The two also do the work required to bring their respective characters to life. Jones digs into the headspace that makes Laura feel as complicated as she is, while Murray wisely never plays Felix as if he’s asking for sympathy on his behalf. If Jenny Slate is wasted (and frankly, unnecessary) as one of Laura’s school mom friends, Wayans proves a welcome presence in a role with enough depth to justify its screen time.
There’s no beating around the bush. On the Rocks is probably the least important and consequential film Coppola has ever made. However, it’s certainly not the worst (as the reigning champ The Bling Ring can attest). The Oscar-winning filmmaker’s latest effort is slight and breezy with a kind of whimsy most unusual for her. It doesn’t have the haunting quality of The Virgin Suicides, the visual richness of Marie Antoinette or the intense character dynamics of The Beguiled. What it does have, however, is a tale about reconciliation and the universal frustrations and fears that plague most women. Even if it doesn’t leave the strongest of impressions (especially considering the names in front of and behind the camera), there’s at least a real truth to it as well as a gentleness that carries it along. Its characters are rich with dimension and complexity and even though the plot isn’t the most dense, there’s still enough depth within On the Rocks to warrant an audience member’s investment. Essentially, the film is a rom-com of sorts, yet it’s a love story between a father and a daughter, two people who have spent years only knowing each other through the peripheral finally meeting.