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On the Rocks | Review

Cheat Street: Coppola Presents Familiar Vintage with Lighthearted Filial Dramedy

Sofia Coppola On the Rocks ReviewFathers and their (sometimes pseudo) daughters have formed the basis for more than one entry in Sofia Coppola’s filmography, and her latest project On the Rocks is more larkish than her previous efforts, in an exercise which plays like the older, wiser bi-coastal cousin to Somewhere (2010).

Dancing effortlessly on the charm and charisma of Bill Murray, playing a rascally version of himself as he dons the persona of a roguish art gallerist trying to avert his daughter’s mid-life crisis through a macabre but offbeat adventure, this is Coppola at her most easygoing. It’s easy to inject an autobiographical interpretation onto these familiar Coppola motifs, another amalgamation of well-heeled creatives residing entirely within their considerable comforts but still struggling to maintain a sense of worth or happiness, but even if this won’t be remembered as one of her most exceptional offerings, it presents a lighter side from the director who is slyly stepping out of her comfort zone in several ways.

Laura (Rashida Jones), a successful writer, is having a difficult time. With forty seemingly around the corner as she’s on the verge of celebrating her 39th birthday, the mother of two has unwisely sold her last book before writing it, and now is suffering from creative malaise. Otherwise, her life seems enjoyable and comfortable, married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), recently traveling a lot as he builds own business. But one night, while kissing her in a stupor, she says something, and upon hearing her voice, he disengages and falls asleep. Suddenly, there are signs everywhere about potential infidelity with a co-worker, his leggy new executive assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Confiding in her father Felix (Murray), a jet-setting, wealthy entrepreneur, he confirms Dean’s behaviors are suspicious, roping his daughter into the art of private investigation as they follow Dean around New York and eventually out of the country. What seems a novel idea, however, soon takes a turn when Laura finally must confront Dean with her fears and feelings

Not surprisingly, Murray is both scene-stealer and life-giver to this narrative, and while Rashida Jones shares a winning chemistry with him, she’s also in familiar form and granted a somewhat uneven character arc (or, rather, it’s an underwritten Wayans which doesn’t allow for a realistic or fruitful examination of marriage and relationship stagnation). Still, eating caviar while they spy on Dean and Fiona from the vantage point of Felix’s Alfa Romeo is somehow topped by his effervescence when being pulled over by the police in a scene which shouldn’t work but somehow does.

Eventually, we piece together this adventure attracts both in different ways and allows Laura to finally address the trauma her father’s infidelity had on the family, providing an unexpected catharsis for them. However, this father-daughter shared funk could have tapped into more profundity, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016). Still, there’s much to enjoy, from Philippe Le Sourd’s street views to another fitting soundtrack from Phoenix, and Coppola even infuses a bit of subtext, introduced as a throwaway comment about a bangle which takes on significance in the form of dueling, gifted watches.

In some respects, Coppola’s characterizations, especially amongst the supporting cast, recall someone like Woody Allen, from the bright blips thanks to Barbara Bain (as Laura’s spry, cynical grandmother), Kelly Lynch (an old flame of Felix’s, credited as “Blonde”) and the joyous Jenny Slate, a anxious motormouth dumping all her romantic troubles on Laura while stuck in line at their kids’ school.

An unsaid element might be Coppola’s approach to finally focusing on people of color, especially considering this is her first film since her 2017 remake of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, wherein she notably excised the only Black character, conveniently skirting around ‘uncomfortable’ realities of the Civil War era narrative. In On the Rocks, the racial make-up of her characters isn’t directly addressed, and arguably, they shouldn’t have to be—but could explain why some aspects of Laura and Dean simply aren’t explored, suggesting at a certain level, in certain circles, it simply doesn’t register as a prominent identity marker—or so it seems from Coppola’s perspective.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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