A film review by Craig J. Koban November 6, 2020

ON THE ROCKS jj
 

2020, R, 96 mins.

Rashida Jones as Laura  /  Bill Murray as Felix  /  Marlon Wayans as Dean  /  Jenny Slate as Vanessa  /  Jessica Henwick as Fiona

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola

ORIGINAL FILM

There's a sly and effective moment midway through writer/director Sophia Coppola's caper comedy ON THE ROCKS (now streaming via Apple TV+) that showcases star Bill Murray at the absolute zenith of his wily on-screen charm. 

His character in Felix (with his daughter Laura - Rashida Jones -  in tow in the passenger seat) are pulled over in the middle of the night in downtown Manhattan by police officers.  The soon-to-be ticketing officer asks him for his license and registration, but soon gets easily frustrated when the rascally Felix doesn't seem too interested in doing so, much to Laura's dismay.  The officer asks Felix to get out of his Italian sports car convertible, after which he notices the arresting cop's badge name and matter-of-factly informs him that he has known his dad for a long time, further showering him for his good man stature.  Felix even offers to call the officer's father right there on the spot.  Not wanting to cause any trouble, the officer asks Felix to hold the call, and seems impressed and flattered by his observations about his dear old dad.  Not only does Felix's low key charisma get him out of a ticket, be he even manages to get the officer to help give his car a jump so they can be on their way. 

This moment is so sublimely priceless, but it also serves to remind me that it's been an awfully long time since Murray and Coppola have worked together (not since 2003's wonderful LOST IN TRANSLATION, which netted Murray some of his best reviews of his career).  The prospect of having them re-combine their creative efforts again after a 17 year absence is cause enough to get cinephiles salivating at the mouths, and the best thing that I will say about their new fangled partnership in ON THE ROCKS is that Murray is indeed the finest thing occupying it.   I remember looking back on Murray's performance in LOST IN TRANSLATION recently with continued admiration, but his character here in ON THE ROCKS is quite different: less wounded, less melancholic and world weary, and more joyously extroverted and rebellious.  When Murray finally appears on screen, Coppola's film generates a real electrifying pulse of intrigue.  He simply captures our attention.  Regretfully, though, if you strip away the actor's presence and Coppola's astute eye behind the camera then all we're really left with here is a pretty disposable and paint-by-numbers story of a woman's suspicions of her husband's possible infidelity.  ON THE ROCKS lacks substance and is perhaps too lightweight and insubstantial for its own good, which is a small shame coming off of Coppola's career rejuvenating last film in THE BELOVED

 

 

The film opens with an ominously amusing voiceover track of what appears to be Felix giving some stern fatherly advice to a much younger Laura: "Don't give your heart to any boys.  You're mine...until you get married.  Then you're still mine."  We then flash forward to modern day New York an are introduced to Jones' Laura, who's a struggling author attempting to get her first book off of the ground while trying to navigate the daily grind of motherhood (when not staring at an empty laptop screen she's tending to her kids' every need as a stay-at-home mom).  Her husband, on the other hand, in Dean (a refreshingly low key Marlon Wayans) is seeing his career making multiple quantum leaps forward with every new workday, leaving him almost as an absentee father/husband because of his office grind.  Beyond the continued aggravation of continually not seeing her husband enough, she begins to resent the amount of time that he's spending with his attractive colleague in Fiona (Jessica Henwick), which begins to fuel her paranoia about his faithfulness. 

Of course, when she calls her dad in Felix he's instantly on the side of Dean being a womanizingr cheat that can't be trusted (mostly because Felix knows the cheating mindset of his gender from experience).  Laura casually brushes him off at first, but then she discovers women's toiletries in Dean's luggage one day after a business trip.  She politely confronts him on it, but he seems calm spoken and rational in his logical explanation.  Laura remains conflicted, but her dad still thinks he smells an easy rat.  When her birthday approaches and Dean confesses that he'll be too busy with work to attend any festivities, Laura turns back to her loving, control freak of a father, which causes him to spring to action.  He coaxes Laura into checking Dean's phone...then his texts...and then into tailing him throughout Manhattan one night...and so on and so on. 

What then emerges in ON THE ROCKS is a road trip-like comedy of errors through the darkened city streets, with Felix and Laura snooping on Dean's every move, hoping to catch him at his absolute lecherous worth.  For the most part, I liked the fact that this is a unique brand of dramedy that focuses on father/daughter dynamics (which has an added meta quality as well, seeing as Coppola is the offspring of her very famous and iconic director dad in Francis).  So many other witless examples of this genre show troubled women confiding in other women that may or may not be good for them, as Laura does have some, including Vanessa (a quite funny Jenny Slate), who's so annoyingly egocentric in her own hedonistic concerns that it all but forces Laura to seek out her dad for emotional solace.  The core relationship here between dad and daughter isn't always a squeaky clean one (she harbors deep hesitations at first in terms of giving in to his novel form of advice), but she nevertheless feels that he's on to something about Dean's trustworthiness, despite the fact that Felix's own past shows him to be a flamboyant troublemaker in his own right.

And Jones is really solid here as her career frustrated and deeply wary wife that wants to trust her husband, but is simply given too many social curveballs thrown her way that makes her plant deep seeds of doubt.  Jones plays her with such quiet spoken sadness that gives the film some understated heartache.  Then, of course, there's her daddy in Billy, and this may be just another Murray role on pure autopilot that the veteran can do in his sleep (the flippant rule breaker that's so warm and inviting with his deadpan wit), but even at the ripe old age of 70 he's capable of finding new hidden layers to this part.  Plus, let's face it, he's so damn good playing parts like Felix, who in turn is an interesting walking contradiction as far as role models go.  He accuses Dean of cheating, even though he's a hopeless flirt and more than a bit predatory with women half of his age.  But, damn it, he's such an affable scoundrel here, which is why Laura seems constantly drawn into his tractor beam-like influential vortex.  Plus, since he was an adulterer himself he knows how adulterers operate, which makes Laura trust his judgment more as the film progresses. 

I only wished, though, that the stakes of this film were just...higher.  There's nothing wrong with Coppola going lighter with new material, but ON THE ROCKS is a bit too sitcomy in its storytelling and contrivances for a creator of her range.  It's a pretty laid back hang-out picture that meanders around from one nocturnal big city vignette to the next (at least New York is appropriately and gorgeously photographed here), and it all culminates to a finale that kind of makes the film end with a disappointing thud (this is a rare case for me recently where I would have preferred a longer version of this film, seeing as at 90 minutes the material here feels malnourished).  Plus, Coppola introduces the unhealthy, but compelling union of the uneasy Laura with her bad news,  playboy-ish father, but never fully explores it to its fullest (there's also the queasy element on display of a white older man being aggressively resentful of his younger black son-in-law that's barely even on the surface here).  I'm kind of split with my star rating here.  If one had to venture out to see this in a cinema, I'd give it two and a half stars, mostly because I don't think it's truly worth a ticket price based on the lack of promised payoff of a Murray/ Coppola union again.  Yet, if watched at home via Apple TV+, I'd say it's a pleasantly diverting, but throwaway 3-star romp worthy of a night at home viewing.  But, yeah, Coppola and Murray are far better than the material here.     

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