SOFIA COPPOLA’S “ON THE ROCKS”: A BREEZY STOP ALONG THE WAY

Photo courtesy of A24 Pictures.

“You are mine.”

These are the opening words of Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks, delivered as a voiceover from a doting father who is speaking to his daughter (presumably in a flashback). Cut to that same daughter’s wedding reception, the bride and the groom disappearing for a midnight swim in a moonlit pool. The metaphor is apt. A pair of kindreds have just taken the plunge. But what Coppola is driving at on a much deeper level is the shift in a woman’s life from one dominant male perspective to another. This is not unchartered territory for the 49-year-old director. Coppola has been exploring the male-female dynamic ever since the end of the 1990s. Yet this is the first time that she has pitted one generation of male values against another. “You are mine” speaks to possession, whereas “to love and to cherish” speaks to support.

Felix, who is portrayed by Bill Murray via On The Rocks, alludes to women as if they are collector’s items, and he does this in the interest of explaining the male ego to his daughter, who is played by Rashida Jones. Their banter is cynical, albeit informed by a deep philosophical position. In that manner, On The Rocks feels like a Woody Allen picture told from a feminine perspective. There are even shades of Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed – not that On The Rocks is an ensemble picture, but it is a unique dramatic comedy set on the side streets of New York.

On The Rocks is Sofia Coppola’s most relatable movie, and that is not meant to impress. Long-time fans have grown accustomed to Coppola taking on existential themes from unexpected angles. The setup in this latest outing is largely centered around a well-to-do wife in her late 30s who comes to suspect that her husband might be having an affair. On paper, this reads like a Lifetime movie synopsis. Add to that Coppola’s main character, Laura, who is a writer, and who (true to every worn-out cliché) has been struggling to overcome an enormous strain of writer’s block. We know Laura, which is to say that we know of a Laura. Laura is an intellectual who carries a Strand bookbag while wearing a Paris Review T-shirt; Laura still has a Bernie 2016 bumper sticker plastered across the inside of her apartment door. Laura is approachable, and pleasant, and, as such, Laura stands apart from Sofia Coppola’s most intriguing lead characters, almost of whom appear isolated, as if surrounded by a moat.

Photo courtesy of A24 Pictures.

On The Rocks is at its best when exploring the father-daughter relationship between Felix and Laura. Their storyline takes on the auspices of a caper, if not a buddy picture or a joyride. Here we find Felix explaining to Laura that she needs to “start thinking like a man;” there we find him telling her that he can “hear everything fine … except women’s voices.” Felix is old and he is a lothario and he tends to overstep his bounds, but he is also rich and he is cultured and he is disarming in the extreme. As an audience, we adore Felix because, yes, that is Bill Murray, but also because we are seeing him through a loving daughter’s eyes, and everything becomes endearing through that lens.

Laura’s relationship with her husband, Dean (played by Marlon Wayans), does not hold the same weight. Onscreen, Marlon Wayans and Rashida Jones don’t really light up the dial. Is this intentional? A reflection of how far their two characters have drifted? The answer is no, and as a result, there doesn’t seem to be any percentage in caring about whether they remain together or not. More to the point, if one is to enjoy On The Rocks (and a handful of its absurdist twists), that would also require an acceptance of the idea that Laura and her husband do not communicate about anything, and that underpinning Laura’s angst is an acute lack of trust.

On The Rocks wants to be aspirational. At the same time, it begs for you to just stop thinking and enjoy. As is custom with all of Sofia Coppola’s movies, the set designs, costumes, and the color palettes are exquisite. The cinematography is superb (including several scenes that were filmed in Tribeca during the summer of 2019). The younger characters tend to prove wiser than their elders, and Coppola, as usual, secures permission to shoot inside of a semi-mythic local haunt. (In this case, it’s the prohibition-era 21 Club, with a specific focus on the table where Humphrey Bogart got engaged to Lauren Bacall.) All told, On The Rocks reflects a lot about what is interesting to Sofia Coppola in this moment. Coppola is a married mother of two (much like Laura) who lives in Downtown Manhattan (much like Laura). What’s more, Coppola has admitted that certain aspects of Laura and Felix were inspired by a real-life friend, and that friend’s father. Combine all of this with an opportunity for Coppola to reunite with Bill Murray for their first major motion picture since Lost In Translation, and one can see how all the necessary pieces begin to fall into place.

Where does On The Rocks rank in terms of Coppola’s oeuvre? Time will tell, but most signs point toward the movie being more of a curiosity or a hidden gem. This is Coppola’s maiden attempt at partnering with a streaming platform for a feature-length movie (Apple TV+), and like so many other directors who have gone that route, the results appear encouraging, if not a little watered down. For anybody who is theater-ready, On The Rocks will arrive in select cities as part of a limited release this coming Friday, October 2nd. For anyone who is not, On The Rocks will be available for streaming via Apple TV+ on October 23rd.

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