We could all use a little Bill Murray in our lives. That is a common refrain in Sofia Coppola movies, beginning with her luminous Lost in Translation and carried through to her newest film, On the Rocks. As seen in that earlier picture, life can be a cycle of tedium and small, everyday slights. Yet a breath of sardonic, twinkling chaos in the shape of a former Not Ready for Primetime Player is always intoxicating—if also sometimes numbing and distracting.
That appears to be Coppola and Murray’s latest insight about the latter’s deadpan energy. For On the Rocks knowingly acts as a companion piece to their first effort, which earned them both Oscar nominations, and a win in Coppola’s case. But if Lost in Translation was a faintly autobiographical effort about a young woman in a doomed marriage trying to find herself in a strange city, with Murray’s character acting as a catalyst, then On the Rocks literally places itself closer to home. There another woman faces an existential crisis, but one infinitely more mature, and against a Murray who is anything but.
The real heart of On the Rocks is thus Laura (Rashida Jones). As a successful and ostensibly happily married woman who is about to celebrate her 39th birthday, Laura appears to be in a good place. Her two beautiful daughters light up her expensive Tribeca apartment in Lower Manhattan, and with them in a school where COVID does not exist, she has time to work on her novel. Nevertheless, she can only think of the success of her entrepreneurial husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), and the long hours and frequent business trips his success requires… including being out of state with his beautiful assistant (Jessica Henwick) on Laura’s birthday.
So enters Papa Felix (Murray), her bon vivant father who among elite New York circles is famed for his prestigious art gallery and wandering eye. Indeed, he arrives in Manhattan after one of his countless trips to Paris, and he’s only returned to wine and dine his daughter at all of New York’s oldest drinking institutions. After being rarely in Laura’s life growing up—he left her mother for a younger woman—Felix now makes an unusual father figure, one who is closer to a suitor, with every concierge, server, and even police officer mistaking Laura as his lover instead of daughter. But when her daily life is so listless, there is an excitement to be had in his presence. Particularly once Dad suggests they begin tailing Dean to see if he’s having an affair.
There is an intimate familiarity about the New York City of On the Rocks, which makes for a striking counterpoint to Lost in Translation. Whereas Tokyo was enigmatic and unknowable, with Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters both strangers in a strange land, this is a Manhattan that Coppola and her stars move through with absolute certainty. It’s a city bathed in constant twilight, and the strong aroma of stiff drinks in low lit haunts like the 21 Club and Café Carlyle. It’s the New York where the martinis always come straight, and Chet Baker is ever playing dimly in the back.
There is comfort to this, but therein lies its danger. Because what is comfortable can also be limiting. Sure enough Laura already knows how daily routines can become suffocating ennui. Her morning and afternoon rituals include trips to her kids’ school, all while being droned at by her one friend/burden (Jenny Slate), and then staring at a blank page the rest of the day. Well, that and wondering why her husband has his assistant’s toiletries in his suitcase.
There’s a similar contentment found in reconnecting with her father, who is far more ingratiating to the audience with his love of stirring the pot. Taking “the little lady” to the same table where Bogie proposed to Bacall, Felix’s idea of fatherhood involves being a good drinking buddy with a wicked sense of humor. And he is, in fact, irresistible; Murray may be a little older and slightly more reserved, but he remains as devastating as ever with the most straight-faced put downs about the differences between the sexes. In truth Felix is a rich chauvinistic ass who can charm his way out of a speeding ticket. But he’s so incorrigibly dapper about the whole thing, he turns his privilege into virtue.
The trick of the movie is Laura is aware of all this. She’s judged it all her life, but in a moment of midlife crisis, she finds it newly winning.
It’s risky to read too much of the biographical in art. Laura and Felix are characters of fiction, after all. Yet there’s an awareness about not only Coppola’s own history with a famous father but also in star Rashida Jones, whose father is another legendary figure in his own industry. I won’t presume to guess how the film might resemble either woman’s actual father-daughter dynamic, but the movie plays on its audience’s knowledge, as well as its star’s insight. Because Jones is phenomenal in understanding her character’s fading wariness toward a Dad who doesn’t take no for an answer. Silently exasperated, and quietly beguiled, by her father’s histrionics, Jones has the harder role and brings soul to what is ultimately a light affair.
And to be sure, On the Rocks is light; even slight at times. The movie is such a clear companion to Lost in Translation that comparison is unavoidable, and it’s not entirely flattering. This is particularly true about On the Rocks’ third act, which goes through the motions toward a resolution that is both predictable and fairly pat. The result is something surprisingly conventional for what had been a sophisticated rumination on marriages and father-daughter dynamics. It would kind of be like if we heard Murray’s words in Johansson’s ear at the close of that other film.
But then perhaps that’s the point. One film was about a twentysomething young woman struggling with identity in her quarter-life. By contrast Laura, like her director, is quite assured in her own voice, and the frivolity, and ambiguity, of Murray’s presence is no longer the defining characteristic. Thus On the Rocks is a film more content to stir its drinks than make a profound statement.
On the Rocks premieres on Apple TV+ on Oct. 23.