It’s hard to leave your comfort zone. This is true for Laura (Rashida Jones), a Manhattanite writer, wife, and mother of two, who begins to suspect that her husband may have a wandering eye when he returns from a business trip acting distant. It’s also true for Sofia Coppola. The writer-director is beginning her third decade as a feature filmmaker and, with On The Rocks, has arguably taken the biggest departure from her oeuvre so far.
Of course, leaving is one thing. How far you get is another matter. On the surface, On The Rocks is a romantic dramedy about a marriage in crisis and a woman intent on discovering the truth. It’s far from the tales of adolescence found in The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring, or the burgeoning adulthood of Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. And yet, those themes that have long gestated in Coppola’s body of work are ever-present.
For these cross-career connections, it doesn’t hurt that Laura’s father, Felix, a Fellini-esque man about town, is portrayed by Bill Murray. After capturing the actor at his most tender in Lost in Translation, Coppola and her star have reunited. Here, Murray plays Felix as a deeply flawed but nevertheless caring accomplice as he convinces Laura to trail her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), across the city.
Despite the Lost In Translation connection of Murray, this is probably Coppola’s film most like the vastly under-appreciated Somewhere, another father-daughter dramedy. The difference is that Elle Fanning as a precocious prepubescent child has now been replaced by a grown-up Jones, and although Stephen Dorff and Murray both portray playboy fathers in their respective films, the latter character possesses an assuredness that the former is desperately lacking.
As Laura and Felix make their way through various New York bars and restaurants, their conversations confirm that Felix himself was a philandering husband who left Laura’s mom. It’s not surprising, considering his whole vibe is “dad who just got back from a trip to Paris who shows up driving a sports car as old as he is while waxing poetic about the fundamental differences between men and women.” But the ensuing conversations reveal a great deal about the rocky foothold on which Laura’s feelings about marriage have been based.
But make no mistake, while the film is introspective and bears Coppola’s signature interests, it’s not as simple as transposing a coming-of-age narrative onto an adult character, nor is it a story about how dear old Dad caused all of Laura’s marital tensions. There’s a clear and thoughtful investment in the nuances and intricacies of Laura’s relationships, both with her husband and father.
While a vital portion of On the Rocks hinges on whether Dean is indeed cheating, Coppola wisely pays interest to the tensions of their marriage that exist outside of questions of fidelity. This interest is present in how they interact with one another at a party, the awkwardness of faulty expectations at Laura’s birthday dinner, and an especially crushing half-joke made by Dean as he tells her that she needs to take time for herself before revealing that he’s booked himself a last-minute work trip to a Mexican resort.
In contrast to this couple out of sync with one another, Laura and Felix are at times shockingly in sync, despite their many differences in personality. When Felix suggests following Dean, Laura retorts with an incredulous and firm “no.” Then they laugh, each understanding that her response is less of an answer and more of an acknowledgment that the proposal is ridiculous. But in that laugh is an agreement that follow him, they will. This dynamic is buoyed by the effortlessly charming back-and-forth between Jones and Murray. They play off each other incredibly well, both imbuing their characters with warmth, humor, and empathy. The latter of these traits is especially commendable with Murray, who never allows Felix to disappear into cliches of eccentricity.
Laura and Felix’s connection is complicated; they each possess an understanding of the other, but their willingness to bend their own worldview to consider the other’s perspective ebbs and flows. Patching up the hurt that remains from Laura’s formative years isn’t a linear process. It’s not even two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it’s stepping to the side. Sometimes it’s standing in place.
Indeed, this is where one could envision a criticism being leveled against On the Rocks: that it goes nowhere; that Coppola departed her usual plot but never took this new narrative anywhere interesting. It can be challenging to discern exactly what Coppola is going for all the time in this rom-com-father-daughter-hijinks-dramedy. It’s a melding of modes and narratives, sure, but to dismiss this as scattered would be to do a disservice to a filmmaker who has long since proven herself as far more skilled than that.
In a brief prologue to the film, we see Laura and Dean sneak out of their own wedding reception for a spontaneous swim. There’s a shot in particular that tracks Laura from behind as she makes her way through the pool room. It recalls similar tracking shots of the eponymous ill-fated heroine of Marie Antoinette as she explores her palace. In that film, this is done with pop-rock blaring over the soundtrack, ironic in its indulgence of teenage impulses for a woman whose story will end only in tragedy. In On The Rocks this shot is accompanied by a mournful jazz standard, one far more woeful than should be paired with a spontaneous and light-hearted wedding adventure. Unlike Marie, Laura’s story isn’t predestined by history, but there’s the same sense of melancholy that accompanies her, even when she seemingly leaps into the pool with glee.
It’s these small moments that I picture fellow Coppola fans being drawn towards. These are the images tinged with sadness that will linger long after the credits roll. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine this is the film that will win over a non-fan. It likely does require a certain fondness for Coppola’s mechanisms of storytelling and thematic through-lines to remain engaged in a film without a whole lot of narrative thrust or aesthetic indulgence.
So, what does that leave us with? A minor Coppola? Perhaps. On The Rocks is certainly not her strongest film, but it may be her most measured. It simultaneously conveys a degree of confidence needed to allow the film to unfold at its own pace and a tentativeness that holds it back from any bold statements. That it lacks a firm resolution may be a cause of frustration among some, but for those attuned to Coppola’s rhythms, watching her work through the problems of maturity is a reward worth toasting.