By Nadia Dalimonte
Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in On the Rocks (2020)
At the melancholy core of Sofia Coppola’s whimsical new film, On the Rocks, is a complex father-daughter bond that warms up the screen. It’s a great character study of two people in quick, reflective, and often disagreeing banter in service of a bigger mystery to be solved. Much like the rest of Coppola’s filmography, there’s a quiet control and charm to be found in this story. She enjoyably works through subjects of relationships, generational gaps, and the institution of marriage. On the surface, her spin on a screwball comedy with a simple plot point feels slight. But in sitting with the film, the qualities that make Sofia Coppola an intriguing filmmaker pour out.
The story centers on Laura (Rashida Jones), a successful New York writer faced with a sudden suspicion that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) might be having an affair. She confides in her philandering, larger-than-life father Felix (Bill Murray), who tells her the words she doesn’t want to hear. Nearly certain that she’s being cheated on, he convinces her that in order to get ahead of the situation, spying on Dean is the best course of action. The film plays out as a father-daughter journey based around the two of them trying to justify their suspicions. But the more they focus on Dean, the more we see their own personal insecurities projected onto Laura’s marriage.
The infidelity plot point could have been resolved, or at the very least addressed, with a conversation early on. There are a few moments when Laura asks Dean a question or two, searching for some clarity, though never expanding into the question she really wants to ask. But the film identifies in the protagonists a deep level of uncertainty they carry about themselves, which pushes them further away from the truth. Laura is uncertain in who she is as a writer. As a mother of two young children, her parental responsibilities eat up her evenings. She spends a good chunk of time in her office during the day trying to write, but can’t break through the block. When faced with the possibility that her marriage is on the rocks, she puts writing on pause and calls her father to ask his opinion. While she remains doubtful, he automatically assumes Dean is cheating on her and is determined they get to the bottom of it. Felix flies from Paris to New York for the said purpose of dealing with this situation, but what he really wants is to spend quality time with his daughter. The idea that her marriage is in trouble gives him the opportunity to swoop in and relay all his archaic knowledge on relationships. Felix also comes from a place of anxiety within himself. His actions are very much driven by his own guilt; the pain he brought onto his family still lives within him, and he projects fears of repetitive behaviour onto Laura’s marriage.
By focusing on the complexities of this father-daughter relationship, Coppola brings an interesting character drama to life. So much of the film is about how relationships can be so reflective of the people in them, and how easily someone can misjudge their partner based on personal fears or insecurities. Rashida Jones does a wonderful job portraying the sincerity and trickiness of loving a complicated person in a complicated time. It’s clear as day that Laura and her father are not on the same page, and she loves him despite his shortcomings. Jones really brings you into the touch and go headspace of someone whose marriage and entire life as she knows it might completely fall apart. Her father Felix is so antiquated in his views, and spends most of his time indiscreetly trying to influence his daughter in all the wrong ways. He’s a philanderer of an old generation who thinks that all men are just like him. The film needed Bill Murray’s lightness and larger-than-life quality to bring an unlikeable role to life. Murray himself, an enigmatic force of nature with hearty charisma, fits Felix like a glove. His shorthand with Coppola also shows on the screen; as was the case of Lost in Translation, she brings out a side to him that other filmmakers can’t and it’s always a delight to watch.
The more conversations Laura and Felix share, the more he’s able to persuade her that her marriage is indeed on the rocks. His persuasion and her uncertainty take them all over New York to follow her husband, which puts them in some adventurous spur-of-the-moment scenarios including a fun “incognito” car chase. The chase scene is a perfect example of how Murray’s charm works his magic in this film. Coppola also establishes the New York setting in a great way. New York becomes a character in the film, and in her voyeuristic approach to the city, there are many “fly on the wall” moments where you feel like you’re zooming through the streets, following the characters. Accompanying the film is a beautiful jazz soundtrack that brings a lot of energy to the setting. A recurring Michael Nyman score in particular compliments the story really well and gives it an optimistic feeling.
While the film shines as a father-daughter story that explores all the generational complexities between them, the final act stumbles. Coppola finds something meaningful to say through all the intimate, reflective conversations but the focus always comes back to the audience guessing whether or not Dean cheated. There’s a far more interesting story in how marriages can lull after some time, and how reaching for success in a busy lifestyle can take a toll on relationships back home. These are elements Coppola touches on, but the building blocks of the story all lead to giving the audience an answer to the question of Dean's fidelity, and results in a totally flat ending. But in sitting with all the behavioral and generational themes that Coppola explores, there is something about On the Rocks that lingers. The charming chemistry between Murray and Jones brings a lot of life into the story, and makes the film resonate as a character study that reveals more than what the characters bargained for.