Why do so many marriages end in divorce? It usually comes down to a common problem – a lack of communication. After the honeymoon stage, a pattern develops once the couple has children and problems develop from the combined pressures of child-rearing and career demands. Sofia Coppola explores this common quandary in her new film, On the Rocks (2020). Laura (Rashida Jones) is trying to resume her professional career as a writer but her daily responsibilities with two young daughters demands a juggling act that allows little time for creativity. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) has recently launched a start-up operation that is requiring more time away from home with office meetings and business trips. As a result, Laura begins to feel an emotional and physical estrangement from Dean. Little signs in his behavior suggest his affections might lie elsewhere. Is he having an affair?
Enter Felix (Bill Murray), Laura’s divorced father and old school bon vivant. Once an art gallery owner, Felix still dabbles in the occasional acquisition or sale but most of the time he enjoys the high life – chauffeured limousine, international travel, and hobnobbing with the rich and influential. As a self-proclaimed expert on male behavior citing himself as a prime example, he begins to encourage Laura’s suspicions about Dean’s faithfulness. At first, she tries to dismiss any doubts but soon Laura is coerced into tracking his movements around town with Felix orchestrating the surveillance.
This scenario could have the makings of a good melodrama or even a suspense thriller but Coppola treats it as a lightweight dramedy. The whole affair is played in a minor key but works on the level of a semi-intriguing character study much like her 2010 feature Somewhere in which Stephen Dorff played a former A-list actor trying to break out of his terminal ennui. It is also possible that On the Rocks is a calculated attempt to duplicate the critical and commercial success of Lost in Translation with the added good luck charm of Bill Murray in a key role.
The problem is that On the Rocks doesn’t really make much of an impression despite a gifted ensemble cast, cinematography by Oscar nominee Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster, 2004) and eye pleasing production design (Annie Ross) and art direction (Jennifer Dehghan), which celebrates a Manhattan that is mostly glimpsed by the affluent. Laura and Dean not only have an airy, spacious condo but an enviable lifestyle which includes frequenting such famous New York City bars and restaurants like the 21 Club. Money is clearly not a problem for this couple just as it wasn’t in most of Woody Allen’s urban comedy-dramas set in the Big Apple.
What starts off as a portrait of a marriage gone stale (at least according to the wife) quickly changes into something else and the focus becomes the dynamic between Laura and her father Felix. Perhaps this was Coppola’s intention all along – to create a showcase for Billy Murray. The actor’s fans will probably enjoy his performance here which is a variation on the Murray persona, a mixture of wry humor, mock sarcasm and oddball charm. But, in the process, Laura is reduced to playing straight man to her unpredictable father and her own story is lost in translation.
Murray does get most of the laughs and the best lines. A hilariously inappropriate role model for his grandkids – he serves them eggcreams before dinner and lets them watch Breaking Bad – he is just as questionable as an adult and almost gets arrested in one scene speeding through the streets of New York in his Alfa Romeo. The role of Felix is not a big stretch for Murray who is an expert at this kind of anti-authority renegade but it’s not all comic shtick and he has a few genuinely heartfelt moments where he offers up the reasons for his failure as a husband and father.
Rashida Jones, the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton, makes a lovely and sympathetic heroine but she is stuck in a role that becomes more and more improbable as the narrative unfolds. Why, for example, would she trust the advice of a father who cheated on his wife and abandoned their family for another woman? She may treat Felix like an annoying interloper yet she consistently invites and acts on his negative assessment of her husband. Most unsatisfying of all is how On the Rocks culminates in a happy ending that seems contrived and a bit of a joke at the viewer’s expense.
Marlon Wayans does what he can to turn the undeveloped character of Dean into a flesh and blood creation but he comes off as nothing more than an affable cipher. Jenny Slate as Vanessa, a school friend parent, is also wasted in a role that reduces her to a comedy sketch caricature of a self-absorbed conversation hog.
There is also a fleeting cameo by Barbara Bain (of Mission: Impossible TV fame) as Laura’s grandmother and Kelly Lynch (Drugstore Cowboy) has a brief walk-on part as a past client of Felix’s gallery. Once again Coppola turns to the French indie rock group Phoenix to provide the soundtrack (they were previously featured in the director’s Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and The Beguiled) and the score also includes some dreamy jazz ballads by Chet Baker.
If you consider yourself a Sofia Coppola fan, then you will probably want to see On the Rocks and you may even enjoy it as a lesser variation on Lost in Translation. But, for me, it feels like she is simply marking time until her next project which we can only hope will inspire the sort of creative fire that produced such distinctive films as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.
On the Rocks is currently available for streaming on Apple TV and for viewing at selected theaters in Atlanta, Ga.
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