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The short-lived, lighthearted allure of ‘On the Rocks’

Relying heavily on Bill Murray’s charm, the otherwise forgetful film strays far from Coppola’s best

The latest drama-comedy ‘On the Rocks’ reunites writer-director Sofia Coppola and actor Bill Murray, as he takes on the role of Felix, a seasoned debauchee and wealthy art dealer. Rashida Jones joins Murray as Felix’s daughter Laura, a writer troubled by the disinterest of her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) and tired of the tedious day-to-day. 

As Laura begins to suspect Dean of infidelity, she confides her intuition to her father. Slyly positing that the worst is indeed happening, Felix proposes that they spy on Dean. Laura, mentally drained of any better ideas, reluctantly agrees. The father-daughter duo then embark on an unlikely urban caper. Coppola, in a more pared down version of her highly stylized works, seems to interrogate the appearances of both her film and Laura’s relationships.

The title of the  movie may be witty, with a clever doubling of both a sophisticated cocktail and a fracturing relationship. But the movie itself also seems to be on the rocks, its shallow charm drawn out over the nearly 100 minutes of runtime and dramatized in predictable emotional outbursts.

The film relies heavily on Bill Murray's entertaining performance of Felix, the eccentric man-of-the-world with too much money and time on his hands. Employing a loyal chauffeur, Felix regularly pops up at the entrance of his daughter’s Soho apartment, often uninvited. He appears even more frequently once Laura’s distress about her marriage is evident. On Laura’s birthday, Felix comes to share long-overdue quality time with his daughter, despite her hesitation. 

They visit the private clubs of New York reserved for the absurdly rich, where every maître-d’ is a friend of Felix’s. After deciding that hiring private detectives isn’t enough, Felix then takes Laura on an “incognito” ride in his flaming red vintage Alfa Romeo to tail Dean. Of course, before that, there was a delightful stakeout consisting of inessential binoculars, wine and a tub of caviar. Here, Coppola even seems to poke fun both at whirlwind dramas and ostentatiousness itself.

These grandiose, spontaneous adventures yield nil to Laura’s marriage, but they do offer some quiet, contemplative moments with increasingly beautiful backdrops on childbirth, heartbreak and a daughter’s hurt from a father’s cavalier attitude towards love and commitment. In one moment, Felix recalls falling in love with Laura’s mother, someone he eventually cheats on in spite of the birth of his two daughters. 

At the film’s emotional climax, Coppola reveals the cracks in Felix’s style. Why do you do it, Laura demands to know, as uncomfortable parallels are drawn between her situation and her mother’s. Well, because he wasn’t the center of adoration anymore, Felix admits. Because it wasn’t fun to be settled. 

Where there is nuance in the characters of Felix and Laura, paternal love shadowed by irresponsibility and a daughter’s love mingled with disappointment, there is less structure in the relationship between Laura and her husband Dean. In a slightly Freudian gesture, the film seems unsure whether to pit Laura’s husband or her father as the source of her turmoil — while the answer could be both, Coppola noncommittally fluctuates between the two relationships and evades any sort of indictment.

Despite inciting the narrative’s essential caper, Wayans’ character makes a surprisingly surface-limited showing. The audience only sees him hurriedly leaving the apartment, networking with business partners at a distance and occasionally playing with his two gorgeous daughters. 

There are also sparsely-sprinkled hints of a husband-wife bond throughout the film: a wedding night dip in a pool, knowing smiles shared in the few minutes Laura and Dean are together and not much more. Perhaps that is the film’s vague thesis — their marriage may be struggling, but not gone, because fleeting, somewhat satisfying moments still remain. Still, Wayans is a comedic actor — rarely playing roles outside of spoofs and comedy — and his performance might be disappointing for audiences going in anticipating a demonstration of serious acting chops. 

The film does reach an ultimate narrative climax in a vacation condo in Mexico, though it is hardly a point Coppola dwells on. It’s a dramedy that doesn’t linger on emotionally heavy moments but dwells on the minor lighthearted ones, taking its time to show a comedic performance from its cast. Jenny Slate plays a talkative fellow mother and Barbara Bain is introduced as Felix’s equally suave, personable mother. 

With opportunities for greater statements on the public and private, or style and substance, Coppola misses a clever gambit, one that might have been bolstered by her own famous directorial signatures of high-scale costume design, pop-culture saturated soundtracks and star-studded cast. Nonetheless, Murray is perhaps the only shining anchor, even a directorial force, in an otherwise lackadaisical film. 



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