New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Youth fades into a pleasant haze in Sofia Coppola’s charmingly uneven ‘On the Rocks’

By Andrea Thompson

Inclusion must be taken quite seriously these days if a filmmaker with one of the whitest filmographies out there has a cast which is primarily comprised of people of color. Then again, I suppose a female filmmaker, even one with Sofia Coppola’s pedigree and connections, has far more reason than her male peers to concern herself with possible irrelevance in today’s world. That said, there’s not a racial aggression, micro or otherwise, to be found in her latest feature.

Never fear though, because “On the Rocks” is a departure for other reasons, not all of them exactly positive, but not terrible either. It is a safer, lighter concoction than what we’ve come to expect from Coppola, but it goes down easily. A bit too easy, actually, much like a cocktail whose lack of an aftertaste isn’t due to a bartender’s skill, but an absence of character.

Predictably, it’s just another day in paradise for Laura (Rashida Jones) and her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), who share the kind of enviable lifestyle lavished on the privileged in New York. Trouble may be brewing however, even if Laura is unsure of its true nature, or if it even exists. She’s noticed that Dean is taking more and more work trips and often coming home exhausted and distracted, and fears that the man she and her two young daughters adore may not be the great father and partner he appears to be. Wayans is also fantastic at keeping things just ambiguous enough to keep the suspicions alive while showing us how even the best couples can get lost in the endless daily grind that is work and parenthood.

Complicating things further is the fact that Laura doesn’t exactly have the best guidance on just what constitutes a healthy marriage. She and her father Felix (Bill Murray) might be close, but his charismatic, larger-than-life personality wasn’t accompanied by much respect for fidelity. Her own insecurities are also higher than usual. She’s a writer who is struggling to get going on her next book, and feels caught somewhere between the various extremes of the other mothers in her circuit, who either exalt the values of facial peels, or turn out to be Jenny Slate mostly wasting her comedic talents as a caricature of a single mother who breathlessly bemoans her various romantic misadventures. 

Such stagnation has another crucial side effect: Laura feels ill-equipped to interact with the very single career women at her husband’s company, leaving her feeling adrift and stuck in the preordained role as The Wife and Mother. Such indecision tends to invite stronger personalities to take the lead, and Laura quickly finds herself drawn into her father’s orbit as they team up to hunt down proof of Dean’s alleged unfaithfulness.

If their misadventures have been hailed as an ode to New York, it’s most likely due to the cataclysm that 2020 quickly revealed itself to be, which has left the city starved for itself, or rather, a version of itself that must feel irrevocably lost as the youth and promise of every character in “On The Rocks.” Coppola’s interests have mostly revolved around other locales throughout her career, but now that she’s on her home turf she mostly sticks to what she knows. The locations may change, but they remain recognizably upper class stomping grounds, where even the servers are elite ballerinas.  

If “On the Rocks” is a tribute to anything, it’s the bonds that endure, even despite our best efforts. Or maybe it’s just the ease and chemistry between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray as a father-daughter duo you want to follow around even at their most ridiculous moments. Laura has clearly given up trying to fight her father’s appeal or his Neanderthal beliefs, and they mesh together effortlessly even after they temporarily break apart. 

Really, don’t all the most celebrated filmmakers have daddy issues? They just seem so much more fun than mommy issues, which have an alarming tendency to involve clinginess, possessiveness, or an ungodly amount of shrieking that’s hell on the ears. Coppola may not hide the effects of Felix’s lifestyle on his loved ones in this clearly autobiographical film, but it’s a given that he’d grab the spotlight rather than her mother, who barely figures into things. When Laura remarks on how nice it must be to be him, Felix gleefully replies, “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” and there’s no doubt that he means it. 

on the rocks couple.jpg

Hell, he even threatens to outshine his own daughter. Sure, she has her own adventures and (re?) learns a thing or two about the dangers of allowing yourself to be guided by such a man’s influence, but his life always feels like the more interesting one. The quiet happiness Laura attains is the end goal of many a film as well, but I wish it didn’t leave off on her trading her father’s watch for her husband’s, thus bringing her dangerously close to merely making herself the property of another man and embracing the values her father believes are at the heart of marriage itself.

Grade: B-

In select theaters October 2 and on AppleTV+ starting October 23.

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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