By Tim Jackson
Sofia Coppola’s flawed characters are part of the real world, engaged in authentic relationships struggling with universal dilemmas.
On the Rocks, directed by Sofia Coppola. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema. Available on Apple TV+ starting Friday, October 23.
On the Rocks is Sofia Coppola’s seventh feature. There is a consistency to what initially look like disparate stories: they tend to be about women alienated from their environments and from themselves. (Somewhere might be an exception, though the character played by Stephen Dorff is tested through his relationships with females, particularly his young daughter.) Coppola’s female rites of passage and/or transitions have wildly different outcomes: suicide in the Virgin Suicides, murder in The Beguiled, execution in Marie Antoinette, and imprisonment in The Bling Ring. Lost in Translation, possibly her best film so far, is not nearly as melodramatic as the others. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, a young college graduate, meets Bob, an aging actor played by Bill Murray, in Tokyo. Across generations, they connect at an uncertain time in both their lives. It’s a love story without sex. Murray brings grace and delicacy to this role; it is one of his best performances.
In her latest film, Coppola again casts Murray, this time as Felix, a successful art dealer, the father of and adviser to Laura (Rashida Jones), a harried housewife who bustles around the city with her two small children. She is happily married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), an up-and-coming businessman whose work requires late hours and much travel. When Laura finds a bottle of massage oil in her husband’s suitcase after his return from a business trip, Dean quickly explains that he packed the item for his assistant, who couldn’t fit it in her own carry-on luggage. The assistant happens to be an attractive young Asian woman (Jessica Henwick) and Laura mentions that fact to her father. He quickly encourages further investigation.
Divorced from Laura’s mother, Felix is a well-connected single man of wealth and privilege. He uses a private chauffeur when he’s not puttering around in his vintage Alfa Romeo convertible. He even knows the local New York City cop when, to his daughter’s amusement, he charms his way out of a reckless driving charge after tailing Laura’s husband around the city. Given his wealth and reputation, Felix’s slightly sloshed appeal appeals to the ladies, which probably accounts for the failure of his own marriage. His overzealous probing of his son-in-law’s alleged affair springs from wanting to protect his daughter, but it also comes from an inflated sense of self righteousness. His suspicion of guilt is likely a projection of his own wandering eye for the ladies.
There is much to admire in Coppola’s urban tale. The triangle of conflict, among father-daughter-husband, may resonate with a generation of boomer fathers who have seen their daughters off to marriage for the first time. And some young women will recognize that parental advice can be fraught with misguided intention. Coppola is keen on telling stories set among the wealthy class and she is not apologetic about it. As a beloved member of Hollywood’s film elite, she writes what she knows. The world of New York City’s elite provides a convenient backdrop for a story that examines a modern marriage, comical because neither character has to deal with particularly large problems. The film’s cross-racial casting is also a nice touch, the result of a liberated and normalized sensibility.
Ultimately, though, the movie comes off as preposterous, its slapstick uneven. In Coppola’s previous efforts, settings became an essential part of the story: the sterile middle-class suburbs of Detroit; the celebrity hideaway of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood; neon-lit Toyko; a Southern seminary isolated against Civil War strife; the cloistered court of Versailles during the French Revolution. Ironically, New York City proffers a less scintillating presence. The conversations between Felix and Laura feel static, despite Murray’s impish charm. What’s more, On the Rocks is not a feminist film, though it touches on some of the travails of motherhood. Neither is it a critique of class, though such excessive sleuthing is only possible for those who can afford emergency babysitters and last-minute plane flights. While it is a story of love and trust, the chemistry among the actors, including a cameo by Jenny Slate, feels under-defined, even tentative. It is also curious why Coppola, herself a fashion icon who has featured imaginative costuming in her previous films, chose to make these New Yorkers look drab.
So this is a minor effort, but it is to be recommended. With a résumé of outstanding features and with well-heeled friends, Coppola is in the position of being able to bypass the customary rigors of funding and pitching. She has the freedom to experiment, to put women front and center. Her films are slippery in terms of genre, and they provide a welcome diversion from what has become an overload of action, fantasy, and politics. Her flawed characters are part of the real world, engaged in authentic relationships struggling with universal dilemmas. These days, that is good enough.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.