'On the Rocks': Film Review | NYFF 2020

On The Rocks
Courtesy of Apple

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in 'On the Rocks'

More of a straight-up martini, tart and refreshing.
10/2/2020

Rashida Jones stars as a New York author plagued by writer's block and marital concerns, with Bill Murray as the playboy father who steps in to help in Sofia Coppola's comedy.

It's become unfashionable to express fondness for vintage Woody Allen films, but think back to how pleasurable they could be before all the off-camera baggage muddied those memories and you have some idea of the warmly satisfying experience of On the Rocks. Distinguished from those predecessors by its wry female point of view, Sofia Coppola's smart, breezy comedy about a marriage that may be in trouble and a meddling father who steps in to save or destroy it stars Bill Murray in peerless deadpan form, bouncing off a superb foil in Rashida Jones. Oh, it's also a sparkling ode to the Manhattan we all miss.

Following its New York Film Festival premiere, the A24 release goes out Oct. 2 in select theaters around the world; its light touch and jazzy rhythms should find plenty of admirers, even more when it drops three weeks later on Apple TV+. This marks Coppola's third collaboration with Murray, following Lost in Translation and the holiday special A Very Murray Christmas. There are aspects of his work in both those projects in his droll characterization here as Felix, an irresistible operator who has made a fortune as a high-end art dealer and also fancies himself a bit of a lounge crooner.

Felix's daughter Laura (Jones) has a complicated relationship with her father, a bon vivant still living according to some archaic international jetsetter playbook that requires him to turn up his suave séducteur setting with every attractive woman he encounters. In a dialogue snippet from Laura's childhood heard over the opening, he tells her: "Remember, don't give your heart to any boys. You are mine until you're married. Then you're still mine." He continues to treat her like his little girl, and even in her late 30s she finds some security in that while at the same time rolling her eyes at the outmoded attitudes of men from his generation.

Laura has long since formed her own family, with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) and their two adorable daughters, elementary school-age Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and toddler Theo (played by twins Alexandra and Anna Reimer). But domesticity in their fabulous SoHo apartment is stifling her sense of self and her creativity, judging by the lack of progress on a book project.

When Dean returns from a London business trip still zonked from the Xanax he took on the flight, Laura interprets his distraction during a romantic moment as a sign he's losing interest. His late nights at the office, reluctance to commit to a summer vacation rental, and the woman's toiletries bag she finds in his luggage, which he explains he was carrying for his colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick), all feed Laura's fear that Dean is having an affair.

Coppola observes Laura's discomfort with an amusingly jaded eye for the self-absorption of well-heeled New Yorkers. Her face is a knot of preoccupation as she drops off Maya at school and endures the chatter of the other mothers. One assures her, unsolicited, that the alarming redness of her skin following a chemical peel will look stunning in a few days' time, while another (Jenny Slate in a delicious running gag) compulsively overshares details of an affair that started during Hurricane Sandy.

In a moment of vulnerability that she will come to regret, Laura confides in her dad, who validates her doubts about Dean, based solely on his first-hand knowledge of men's natural disinclination for monogamy. "The bangle is a reminder that women were once men's property," Felix tells her while appraising the gift on her wrist from Dean.

This is one of many cultural observations that in Murray's simultaneously ironic and sincere delivery are seemingly erudite but flagrantly out-of-sync with 21st century gender politics. His account of the evolutionary development of the classically desirable female form is a hilarious nugget of historical arcana filtered through the warped prism of the male gaze. Coppola has a lot of fun exploring the conflict between father-daughter affection and sharp attitudinal divides, aided immeasurably by the entertaining chemistry between Jones and Murray.

Felix's unreconstructed views on male and female roles are evident in a funny scene with his besotted granddaughters, in which Laura comes home to find he's been teaching them how to shuffle cards and bluff, "and that girls should wear their hair long and pretty, how boys like it." Later in a bar, he confesses he might be going deaf: "I can hear everything fine except women's voices. I think it's the pitch."

Taking charge of her possible marital dilemma over Laura's objections, Felix at first suggests standard sleuthing moves like checking Dean's phone. But when that turns up nothing conclusive, he persuades her that the situation calls for serious detective work.

In a scene that fully cements the debt On the Rocks owes to sophisticated Hollywood comedy-mysteries of the 1930s and '40s — Coppola specifically cites The Thin Man as an influence — Felix insists they follow Dean on a company dinner. His idea of remaining incognito is to leave his regular car and driver at home, turning the night into an adventure by picking up Laura in a vintage red convertible with a pair of binoculars and a snack pack of caviar and champagne.

What keeps all this blithe privilege from becoming obnoxious, paradoxically, is Coppola's winking acknowledgement that it's grounded in coddled experience, not covetous materialism. The writer-director balances disapproval with resigned admiration for Felix's ownership of New York City — indeed, perhaps the entire world — as his personal playground. The portrait inevitably suggests elements of Coppola's own larger-than-life father and his cronies.

In the priceless conclusion of that sports car scene, while tailing Dean, father and daughter are pulled over for speeding by an initially prickly Irish cop (Mike Keller). Watching Felix wrap the officer around his little finger using old family connections but also just innate charm is a hoot.

The movie shifts pleasingly into full-blown caper mode when Dean announces he’s going on a company trip to a Mexican beach resort and Felix insists they follow him, resulting in a humiliating discovery for Laura.

Throughout the script, Coppola elegantly sprinkles in questions about men's ability to be faithful, and the compromises expected of women to make marriage work. These observations often are exchanged in the plush Upper East Side drawing rooms or the ritzy supper clubs, bars and restaurants that are Felix's hangouts, where he invariably knows the waiters by name and often runs into a lady friend who just might be looking to offload a Hockney. (Kelly Lynch turns up briefly as one such presumed former flame with assets.) Even before the photographs displayed in Felix's apartment reveal shots of him with Andy Warhol and Barack Obama, it's clear he mixes in very influential circles.

Philippe Le Sourd's caressing camera savors the swanky environments with a delight that will be elixir to any of us who ever craved the New York high life. Perhaps even more inebriating are the many shots of streets and skyscrapers at night, glittering with a defiant majesty that seems a lifetime away from the city's current sad, half-spent state under the pall of 2020. The silky flow of Sarah Flack's editing feels similarly luxuriant.

Music is always a key part of Coppola's aesthetic. Mirroring her use of Air in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, she steers the action along to cool electronic tracks by French synth band Phoenix (the director is married to frontman Thomas Mars), stirring in occasional jazz and pop standards. A highlight among those is Felix serenading the assembled guests at a beach bar with "Mexicali Rose," a silly-sweet interlude that wears down our resistance as much as Laura's.

There's a lovely, unforced quality to the way Laura's anxieties about her marriage intersect with unresolved feelings about her father's long-ago infidelity, which crushed her mother and shattered their family. This is played beautifully by the two actors. As Felix reflects back on his need once again to feel that glow of fresh attention that had faded with marriage and parenthood, there's poignancy in his admission both of his weakness and his regrets: "It was heartbreaking for everyone." Murray has seldom been better.

Wayans, an actor generally better known for broad comedy roles, is unexpected casting as the husband under suspicion; his smooth manner as Dean keeps us guessing while rooting for him to be the good guy. But On the Rocks is very much a father-daughter two-hander — tender and personal, dryly funny and played to perfection by Jones and Murray. Its effortless touch shows the accomplished, genre-hopping Coppola continuing to expand her range.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production companies: Apple Original Films, A24, American Zoetrope
Distributor: A24/Apple TV+
Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate, Liyanna Muscat, Alexandra Reimer, Anna Reimer, Barbara Bain, Juliana Canfield
Director-screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
Producers: Youree Henley, Sofia Coppola
Executive producers: Fred Ross, Mitch Glazer, Roman Coppola
Director of photography: Philippe Le Sourd

Production designer: Anne Ross
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Music: Phoenix
Editor: Sarah Flack
Casting: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Rated R, 97 minutes