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‘On the Rocks’: Sofia Coppola Enlists Murray and Jones for a New York Story

Cinema | November 14th, 2020

Sofia Coppola’s delightful distraction from national affairs sees the writer-director returning to her sweet spot: the tiniest whiff of autobiography in a story that, to paraphrase James Stewart’s Macaulay “Mike” Connor in “The Philadelphia Story,” eavesdrops on “the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” A mashup of thematic terrain explored in the cross-generational partnering of “Lost in Translation” and the father-daughter bonding of “Somewhere,” “On the Rocks” notches another exemplary Bill Murray performance in the actor’s latest team-up with Coppola.

“On the Rocks” delays Murray’s grand entrance as playboy/art dealer/epicure Felix by sketching the weary routines of Rashida Jones’s Laura, a successful writer and devoted New York mom pulling inequitable domestic duty with a pair of young kids to cover for the frequent absences of workaholic husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), whose promising tech startup requires dinner meetings, business trips, late nights, and lots of hours away from the nest. Marital woes and worries are exacerbated by the proximity of Dean’s chic colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Laura suspects that her husband might be hiding an affair, and papa Felix encourages the thought.

In a well-explored literary and cinematic tradition, comedies of suspected infidelity lean heavily on tropes including misconstrued clues/evidence of cheating as well as poor or nonexistent communication within otherwise strong relationships. While we all know that some simple and straightforward talk would clear things up in an instant, our nervous protagonists must run the gauntlet before arriving at the almost always happy conclusions. From Preston Sturges’s “Unfaithfully Yours” to Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?,” the format accommodates a large number of pathways.

Coppola has always shown an affinity for mixing laughter and introspection, and “On the Rocks” successfully deploys the strategy. The amateur stakeouts and sleuthing of the used-to-be-fun Laura and the rakish Felix -- who insists on “getting ahead” of Dean’s possible liaison by teaming up with Laura to spy -- snowball into increasingly ridiculous predicaments, but the gags are a front for an earnest and heartfelt exploration of the challenges we face when addressing a parent as a person who has dreams and desires that exist independently of the complete attention we desire. And since Laura worships her father, the pain he has caused comes with an extra sharp sting.

Observed through the lens of their differences, Jones plays the more challenging role -- Laura’s insecurities about her own marriage and the constraints and responsibilities of motherhood contrast with Felix’s inveterate, age-inappropriate flirtations with seemingly every woman who crosses his path, allowing Murray to pour on the charm as a mansplaining, alpha-male relic of a fast-dimming era. And yet, when Felix sneaks Laura down the hall at an acquaintance’s party to share a moment gazing at a privately-held Monet, we see what Laura sees in him.

Surely, Coppola is playing with some subtext to circle around the recent shifts and changes in attitude toward the sexual entitlement of powerful men in Hollywood. And what elevates “On the Rocks” is the filmmaker’s position that Laura’s love for her father, in spite of Felix’s sexism and narcissism and the impossibly easy manner in which he glides from one charmed experience to another, outweighs all of the things about him that she cannot abide. 

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