starring Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
written and directed by Sofia Coppola
by Walter Chaw Of all the people making them, Sofia Coppola makes Sofia Coppola movies better than anyone else. Her body of work is remarkable for its consistency--such as that of a Japanese master like Ozu or Mizoguchi, frankly. So the chief complaint of nepotism levied against her strikes me as something of a mixed blessing. I don't know that many creators have ever had the cachet to make exactly the films they want to make. Every single time. And the ones I can think of for which this is also true, it either wasn't always true, hasn't resulted in the level of visibility that Coppola's films earn, or tend to be the province of men exclusively. I wonder about the resentment of some critics towards Coppola for somehow not being representative enough, as though any one artist can or should be expected to check every box. Best, often, not to try. I think of another woman and filmmaker with a similar amount of creative single-mindedness, Claire Denis, scoffing in an interview with Jonathan Romney of THE GUARDIAN when asked about the Hollywood #MeToo movement: "That's a discussion that's only being had in rich countries. The world is not just the United States and Europe. It's a debate of spoiled children. I couldn't care less about the Weinstein affair." Where Denis is indicated mostly by how little she cares what you think, Coppola is branded as a figure mortally wounded by her time in the public view. That vulnerability, real or only perceived, inextricably infuses every frame of her movies with just a little extra trembling pathos.
Before the water gets too deep for me (too late maybe), Coppola's On the Rocks is more a companion piece to her Somewhere than to her other Bill Murray vehicle, Lost in Translation. It's another confessional, delicate memoir capturing the tender, passingly strange, brutally brief ways that fathers and daughters intersect with each other. I'm haunted by the line in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray's Byronic traveller tells Scarlett Johansson's lost girl how having children is terrifying, and then one day they're the most interesting people you've ever met. As my kids grow into their young adulthood, the terror is still there, but I see the adults they're becoming by absorbing, smothering, murdering in a sense the children they were. Coppola's films capture a certain lovelorn Romanticism of innocence lost, of being adrift off the shores of your own life. Her protagonists until this film have been young girls on the verge of a transformation--sometimes fatal (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled, her staging, following in her father's footsteps as an erstwhile opera director, of Verdi's La Traviata), sometimes pecuniary (The Bling Ring), always, if sometimes merely, winsome (Lost in Translation, Somewhere). They are stories, all, of Coppola's privileged perspective as the forcibly detached observer of her own maturation. Everyone mourns their youth. Coppola does it this way.
With On the Rocks, Coppola stops dealing with her most distant past selves' phantoms and gains a more proximate avatar in on-the-cusp-of-40 Laura (Rashida Jones). Laura is married to marketing influencer Dean (Marlon Wayans), who, lately, has been travelling heavily for his job on the arm of his new assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). After an awkward evening where Dean returns home from a trip and appears to mistake a sleeping Laura for someone else only to be disappointed to discover it's his wife, Laura turns to her dad, Felix (Bill Murray), to express her suspicion that Dean's cheating on her. Felix, a serial and enthusiastic philanderer, does nothing to quash her suspicions and helps Laura investigate Dean's actions to catch him in the act.
Murray is at his best in performances where he appears to be in a different movie from everyone else. It made him the perfect Larry Darrell in 1984's The Razor's Edge, a role that is arguably the first "Murray" performance. He was the perfect Polonius. He's a good fit for Coppola, who finds for him scenarios in which he can float above and through the picture, never entirely present--that maddening conversation partner who is ever three subjects ahead and pulling away. His Felix is fond of pop evolutionary and sexual anthropology and shares his thoughts on the myth of monogamy and the origins of female sexual attractivity with Laura. For her part, Laura has a look that says she's heard this before, and it's like aural wallpaper for her now. When Felix shares with Laura's two little girls that men prefer women's hair long and pretty, Laura tries to be angry, but she loves Felix. The world has left many Felixes behind, but they are still of the world, and On the Rocks is wise about this. Laura's other confidant is a fellow mother at her kids' school, Vanessa (Jenny Slate), who is involved in an affair with a married man and never stops speaking "woke" phrases as her rationale for making bad decisions. Laura is caught between the Charybdis of Vanessa's solipsism and the Scylla of her dad's misogyny. Really her problem is that she feels like she's boring and trapped as a caregiver while her husband is out setting the world on fire. Really, her problem is that no one is actually listening to her.
On the Rocks spends as much time with Laura and what she wants and needs as it does with Felix and his requirements. In Dean's possible straying, Felix sees an opportunity to be useful for his daughter again. He anchors himself in her life with the gift of his watch: a token of their shared past and a symbol of his attentiveness, though we learn through the course of the film that he abandoned the family and that Laura hasn't completely come back around to trusting him again. Felix holds precious insight in this particular situation, however, of a husband acting dishonourably. In one lovely sequence, Laura asks why Felix didn't stay with the woman who broke up his marriage to Laura's mother, and rather than answer, he says how wonderful a painter his now-dead mistress had been. There's immense sadness here in the realization that when all these little affairs are settled, what's left is a stark awareness of what has been created and forgotten, what can never be created now because the hour is late, and what remains destroyed because it's too late to repair it. Laura is just beginning to see the end of things, and Felix, save for this moment, is doing his best to distract her from it. "What happened to you?" he asks her. "You used to be fun." What's happened to her happens to all of us: we lose hope as we gain wisdom.
Then On the Rocks changes course. Felix talks Laura into tracking Dean on a trip to Mexico, where they catch the pretty assistant in Dean's room. But it's not what you think, and then it's raining hard and Laura can't get a flight back home. The film ends with the watch again, and in what Laura does with it, the decision she makes as the centre of her world at last is devastating for the truth it tells about what happens between fathers and daughters if everything goes according to plan. Life is an insupportable tragedy when it goes exactly right, Coppola says, and On the Rocks clarifies that this is, in fact, the thesis of her entire journey to this moment. If things go well, you replace your parents with your spouse, and maybe children, and then your parents die before you do. If things go well, you grow beyond hope into despair; the best you can wish for is the ability to bear it with grace. I'm drawn to Sofia Coppola's films because there is about them a sense of an artist who understood despair at the moment of bliss and has from too young an age been unable to separate the sensation of being loved from the understanding of love's inability to hold back the world. Coppola tells her films through image and sound; her soundtracks are as important to her work as Tarantino's are to his. If On the Rocks were a song, it would be by The Pretenders. Instead, it features a needle-drop by Chet Baker, a tragic figure caught in this perpetually lovely amber of a groove in wax. Everything is right about On the Rocks. It's terribly sad.
On the Rocks is now playing on Apple TV+.