Film Review – On the Rocks
On the Rocks
The premise of On the Rocks (2020) contains all the ingredients of classic screwball comedy. A woman develops a nagging feeling that her husband is having an affair. Egged on by her Lothario father, she begins to track her husband’s whereabouts in anticipation of catching him red handed. This is a story ripe for all kinds of hijinks and awkward situations. But in the hands of writer/director Sofia Coppola, it feels much more down to Earth. These are characters that don’t exist in a make-believe world but one that resembles reality. We very well could have walked past people like them on the street.
That has always been Coppola’s strength – her ability to take her narratives and ground them so that the feel authentic. Regardless of whether they involve a scandal (The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring), are period pieces (Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled), or examine characters in existential crisis (Lost in Translation, Somewhere), they all contain her vision of an everyday, tangible world. We don’t so much witness her stories from a distance but step into them and follow along in the journey.
On the Rocks continues this aesthetic, even if it operates at a much smaller scale than the rest of Coppola’s work. This is a light story, one that leans more toward comedy than drama, and that’s totally fine. Laura (Rashida Jones) is a New York wife and mother who lives in a nice apartment right in the middle of the city. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is a hardworking entrepreneur, which benefits the family financially but has caused a strain with Laura. She senses a growing disinterest from him – he’s more involved in his work than with her. Laura is a writer but is suffering from writer’s block. Her days are spent staring at a blank computer screen or listening to her friend (Jenny Slate) drone on about inconsequential topics when dropping her kids off at school.
Laura’s worry over Dean develops into concern when – after one of his business trips – she finds a woman’s toiletry bag in his suitcase. Dean’s half-hearted attempt to explain it does nothing to temper Laura’s suspicions, and that is when we meet her father, Felix (Bill Murray). Felix is a lifelong playboy and makes no apologies for it, but he also has a deep seeded love for his daughter. Once Laura tells him about Dean, Felix’s impulsive tendencies kick in. He encourages her to snoop around Dean’s phone and credit card statements, trying to find some hint of a misdeed. Soon enough, the two are driving through the streets in the dead of night, tracking Dean’s whereabouts like amateur detectives bungling their way through a case.
Above all else, Coppola’s main focus is the relationship between Laura and Felix. She uses their dynamic to spotlight Rashida Jones and Bill Murray’s natural charisma. As the lead, Jones fills Laura with both wit and weariness. Her persona can make us believe that she is writer. She can go toe to toe with her father, delivering a funny zinger just as well as he can. But years of marriage and parenthood has given birth to constant exhaustion. Laura doesn’t have the inspiration to keep up with her work and doesn’t feel the affection she needs from Dean. It also doesn’t help that she grew up with a father whose actions stand in complete opposite of everything she believes in.
Bill Murray has long been Coppola’s muse, and is perhaps one of the only actors that could pull off a character like Felix. Not many can play a womanizer and still come off as charming (the only other I can think of is maybe Jack Nicholson). Felix is the kind of guy who is the center of attention every time he enters a room, talking to people as if he’s known them for ages and hits on random women out of natural habit. Felix is clearly a hypocritical person, given that he’s so enthusiastic about exposing Dean’s extramarital affairs. Laura appears to take it all in stride, brushing off Felix’s ways knowing that he’ll never change. Is Felix helping or hurting Laura’s perspective on Dean? Is Laura’s opinion of her father fueling her growing doubts about her husband?
New York City is a supporting character. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography captures the skyline with twinkling lights set against romantic music. Like all the great movies featuring The Big Apple, the production creates an air of spontaneity, where anything can happen and the potential to run into anyone is heightened. The night scenes where Felix and Laura traverse the city are visually the most engaging. We visit high class apartment buildings, bars, and hotels, all of which exude a nostalgic vibe. When they sit down at a restaurant and he describes how it was once frequented by a famous movie star from long ago, we believe him.
Unfortunately, Coppola doesn’t maintain the narrative flow, and the third act downshifts into neutral where revelations are made and emotions are hung out to dry. All of this we’ve seen before, and thus On the Rocks slows down to a fairly standard conclusion. It’s too bad, given how good everything else was. When Jones and Murray are onscreen sharing their thoughts and feelings through conversation, that’s when the movie truly shines.