On the Rocks

An elegant, subtle and playful take on marital affairs with Bill Murray providing dubious advice as the aging playboy dad

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes all of twenty minutes for Bill Murray to bound onto screen in Sofia Coppola’s new film.  Before he does, the scene is set on the roundabout of routine so familiar to young parents who juggle their children’s needs with work or career and can’t find enough time for relationship intimacy.

It is big Bill, so good in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s best known film, that we have been waiting for. Big Bill all set to play up and goof around.

Felix (Murray) has a daughter who lives with her husband and two children in a trendy neighbourhood in Manhattan. Laura (Rashida Jones), is always on the go, shuttling between school gate and toddler group. Yet when she sits in the quiet stillness at home to write, she finds herself tidying her desk and sorting files.

Her career is doing great, and so is her husband’s with half a million followers online, but success breeds problems all its own.

Felix drops by in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and is all ears when Laura lets on that she is has the sense that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), may be having an affair. There was a female toiletry bag in Dean’s luggage, and he acted strangely towards her after arriving home late from a business trip to London.

We don’t know much of Dean’s side of the story because Coppola is a filmmaker who consistently prioritises the female point-of-view her focus. In films like The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides, she has taken us into a world made up almost entirely of women. It was the latter film that announced her arrival in early, heady ways back in 1999.

Jenny Slate and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks

The writer-director is a deal more playful here, and has a bit of fun with the doubts and fears of her female protagonist. Laura wonders whether she is in a rut, not putting her best self forward, and boy, does she let herself get an earbashing from that awful character (Jenny Slate) every time they meet at toddler group.

Then there’s the ‘innocent’, sly question from elsewhere at lunch ‘Is Dean still travelling a lot with that new assistant?’

Sofia Coppola has a keen eye for the small details that give people away

The new assistant, Fiona (the dazzling Jessica Henwick), is Dean’s new account manager. It happened to be her toiletry bag with pink hearts that was in Dean’s luggage.

A world away from the operatic, grand cinematic statements made by her famous father­­­­­­­­ – think The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now – Sofia Coppola always has a keen eye for the small details that give people away. And she has developed a deft hand at irony and subtle humour.

Indeed, she has two comedians in key roles to offset Laura’s frame of mind. The engaging, affable Wayans is a comedian in his own right and one of the stars of the Scary Movie franchise. And of course, we all know Bill.

Actor-comedian Murray, a star of the Ghostbusters franchise, has had a renaissance in recent decades, particularly since he became unforgettable as the bored weatherman in Groundhog Day, and the world-weary businessman in Lost in Translation.

Actor and director capitalise on the dead-panning persona in On the Rocks. If Murray does sound a touch uncertain at times, and doesn’t deliver his lines with quite the same assurance as before, he is perfectly cast as Felix. Moreover, he helps keep things light.

On the Rocks, despite the subject, has an airy lightness of being. Over the years, some critics have discounted her work for its interest in fashion’s froth and fizz, but it is one of the things that endears her to her female audiences.

Coppola can’t be accused of a focus on fashion here. Laura is seldom seen out of her working mother uniform, alternating subdued grey tees with her stripey ones.

Coppola is one of the most successful female indie directors ever with seven really distinctive fiction feature films to her name. On the Rocks is an elegant, wry and subtle play on relationships that has all the earmarks of Sofia Coppola.

The British Film Institute nominated it as one of top ten new films to watch in 2020. Only three of these, Tenet, Da 5 Bloods and On the Rocks, have reached us so far in 2020. As a film with a female perspective, the contrast with the other two releases, could not be more marked.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7