In her much-anticipated reunion with Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola has traded in the glittering cityscape of downtown Tokyo for the upper crust lives of rich New Yorkers, in an examination of familial dysfunction, monogamy, love, and the personal territory of living in the shadow of a famous patriarch. With On the Rocks, Coppola’s penchant for leisurely observation is further utilised, if not necessarily enhanced. That is to say, there is nothing particularly striking about her ninth feature film, save for the non-Netflix holiday special application of one Mr. Murray, positively revelling in his role as a high society, playboy father who made his name in the New York City art world. But not everything demands to be utterly remarkable — especially now. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply spend time with likeable people, as that opportunity has become few and far between, and On the Rocks proves a perfectly sweet, serene, 90-minute respite.
Years after trading vows with entrepreneur husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), Laura (Rashida Jones) is starting to think that her marriage, and her life, has lost its spark. With two young girls in tow and a book deal that isn’t writing itself, Laura spends her days at home in her Manhattan apartment struggling through writer’s block, suffering fellow parent Vanessa’s (Jenny Slate) tales of romantic woe while dropping off or picking up her kids from school, and watching Dean’s success as a businessman flourish. Feeling neglected and falling behind on her goals, Laura can’t help but feel like Dean has extramarital interests in mind, as he’s constantly surrounded by his young coworkers whom he travels with frequently — in particular, a woman named Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Troubled by a recent sexual interaction with Dean that left her feeling like he yearned for someone else, Laura confides in her flirtatious father, Felix (Murray), who left Laura and her mother for his mistress many years ago, and finds it impossible to keep himself from trying to seduce every woman he sees.
In Felix’s gendered mind, all men are carnal and exactly the same — that is, the same as him, and so he believes Dean is not to be trusted. After suggesting Laura snoop through Dean’s phone to no avail, the father-daughter pair embark on a sleuthing excursion to deduce whether Dean is truly having an affair with Fiona (albeit, reluctantly on part of Laura). Felix has Dean tracked by a private investigator who turns up a series of innocuous photos of Dean, but did spot Dean shopping for jewelry at Cartier — from which Laura received no recent birthday gift. This further fuels Laura’s suspicions and culminates in her and Felix following Dean on a business trip to a Mexican resort, hastily revealed to Laura at the last minute, to figure out once and for all what Dean is getting up to when he travels with his attractive coworker.
Ultimately, Laura and Felix’s descent into small-time detective work becomes symptomatic of their own dysfunctional relationship, and of Felix’s warped perspective on marriage, gender, and sexuality. The duo consistently quibble on issues of monogamy, love and faithfulness, Felix of the mind that it’s almost unconscionable to believe two people can stay devoted to one another, while Laura is particularly bitter towards him for choosing pleasure over parenting all those years ago. Felix mewls to her that “We all just want to be loved,” when he explains his reasoning for leaving Laura’s mother — that her attention had to go to baby Laura, and Felix felt unloved and unwanted. But Laura wanted to be loved too, and instead she was neglected so that Felix could run off with a woman he ultimately left as well. The strength or weakness of monogamy is, thus, not dependent on the institution itself, but on the ideals of the people choosing to commit to it. Felix is not a victim of monogamy, but of himself.
Murray and Jones showcase a delightful chemistry, and Coppola’s enchantment with the city of New York shines through her slightly wearisome fixation on upper class life — though, being the daughter of one of the most famous auteur filmmakers of all time, what other kind of class are we really expecting her to depict? The film does occasionally feel like bourgeoisie porn, and it being intent on portraying Laura as belittled by her much more high society family members for wearing *checks notes* crewneck sweaters, is almost laughable (rich people are all the same to us down here in the proletariat). But Coppola does poke fun at the particular snobbery of Felix and his unwavering devotion to expensive cars and caviar, even while on a stake-out. Perhaps, it’s her way of disavowing her own elite family ties in favor of a more down-to-earth lifestyle, as Laura and Felix could easily be seen as placeholders for Coppola and her towering father, Francis.
But the film is not condescending or classist — on the contrary, it’s simply idyllic. While certainly familiar territory, and not the most ambitious piece of art to be released in this chaotic year, the film is tender, warm, and occasionally quite funny. You could say many films as of late have been given critical leeway due to the, you know, state of everything in the world, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People are craving art to remind them that life is still beautiful, that people still love one another, that there was a time before the bedlam of 2020 and there will be a time after it. The world of On the Rocks is an artifact of the “before times,” and it’s also a hopeful look at the times to come. We will go back to roaming city streets, kissing loved ones and trailing suspicious husbands to Mexico without thinking to wear a mask or retain six feet distance. Sofia Coppola did not create either a masterpiece or an antidote to 2020, but she’s given us a break. What more could we really want?
On the Rocks is available to stream on Apple TV+
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs