Sofia Coppola’s new film is smart about philandering, but clueless about privilege
How do you objectively assess a movie about a ruminative daughter and her philandering father when the writer-director is the ruminative daughter of a philandering father? On the Rocks, a smooth, bittersweet cocktail with very low alcohol content, makes it difficult not to blur fact and fiction, mainly because the mood piece, as with many Sofia Coppola films, is thin on story and thick with atmosphere. The mind drifts, and it conflates.
ON THE ROCKS ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
Running time: 96 min
This polished, bespoke minidrama details the ennui of New York novelist Laura (Rashida Jones), a wife whose suave husband Dane (Marlon Wayans) may or may not be cheating on her. Dane, a hard-working executive at some upstart boutique tech company (they just celebrated 500,000 hits or likes or users or whatever) travels a lot. He’s a doting father to their two daughters, but he also seems emotionally distant, especially since returning from a London trip with his fetching co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick).
Laura’s suspicions arise when she finds Fiona’s toiletry kit in Dane’s luggage. “Sloppy move,” sighs Laura’s dashing divorced dad Felix (Bill Murray), a well-tanned and well-heeled art dealer who comes in and out of her life. He assumes the worst because he’s the worst, too, at least when it comes to marital fidelity.
Just back from a trip to France, Felix decides to stay in the city and make Laura’s domestic angst his project. Simultaneously reassuring and undermining his daughter at every turn, Felix can’t help but mansplain marriage. “The bangle is a reminder that women were once men’s property,” he blithely remarks after picking up Laura in his private town car.
Felix squires her around Manhattan, from private social dining rooms to the “21” Club and Bemelmans Bar. “Lunch at the Sentinel?” he texts her. She doesn’t bat an eye as he shows up yet again in front of her posh Soho loft, inured to her father’s casual excesses even as she’s surrounded by her own. His amateur sleuthing reveals that Dane recently made a discreet trip to Cartier—and yet her birthday present is a gimmicky food processor. Distrust grows strong enough to prompt their joint secret surveillance of Dane’s last-minute business powwow at a luxurious Mexican resort.
On the Rocks is a classic example of entitlement ennui, the kind of gilded-cage languor that suffused Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. And, like her poignant father-daughter valentine Somewhere, it also examines the heartfelt dynamic between a sweet, reserved child and a larger-than-life parent tinged with melancholia.
If anything, the film only hints at Felix’s luxurious sadness. He seems to live a consequence-free life, charming his way out of speeding tickets and flirting with every woman in his path. He’s the living embodiment of White Male Privilege. This is a guy who hobnobbed with Warhol and visited the Obama White House, who tosses off throwaway wheeling-dealing lines that mention De Kooning or Hockney. And yet his antics with Laura are clearly meant to fill an emotional void.
Bill Murray’s alchemical way to be both a goofball and the sad clown works well here, and predictably buoys the action throughout. But there’s a sense that On the Rocks is a missed opportunity to address deeper themes more uncomfortable than affairs of the heart.
On the Rocks is Coppola’s first film cast people of color in principal roles. And the idea of a moneyed white playboy like Felix presuming that his black son-in-law is cheating on his daughter seems too loaded not to explore. Felix’s mother (Barbara Bach), in a brief, opulent scene, also comes off as a supremely wealthy Greenwich progressive, a limousine liberal with a mixed-race granddaughter and great-grandchildren. And yet Coppola presents everything with an unruffled sheen. Strange how such a seen-it-all film that’s one big eye-roll to philandering men comes off as so wide-eyed and naïve about so many other issues.