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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

On the Rocks

Sofia Coppola teams up with Bill Murray for the third time, and the result is another insightful delight.
By Sarah Ward
October 01, 2020
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On the Rocks

Sofia Coppola teams up with Bill Murray for the third time, and the result is another insightful delight.
By Sarah Ward
October 01, 2020
  shares

UPDATE, October 23: On the Rocks is currently playing in Wellington cinemas, and will be available to stream via Apple TV+ from Friday, October 23.

Not once, not twice, but three times now, Sofia Coppola has given the Bill Murray-loving world exactly what it wants. One of the great comedic talents of the past half-century, the Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day star is also a greatly charismatic talent — and, understandably, viewers want to spend more time in his inimitable company. In Lost in Translation, Coppola found a way to take this idea literally, in a fashion. With Scarlett Johansson's unhappy twenty-something doubling as the audience's on-screen surrogate, everyone watching was able to vicariously pal around with Murray's character, a high-profile actor, while taking in quite the tour of Tokyo. In 2015 Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas, the filmmaker let Murray play himself, get jovial and ooze charm. And now in On the Rocks, he steps into the shoes of a debonair playboy art dealer who is determined to help his New York-dwelling adult daughter discover if her husband is being unfaithful.

On the Rocks' premise really isn't far removed from Lost in Translation. The film's female protagonist is a decade older this time, her romantic troubles are complicated by both marriage and children, and another bustling city provides the backdrop, but the basic idea remains mostly the same. With Murray as the lively Felix and Rashida Jones as his overstressed offspring Laura, the movie takes them hopping around NYC as they endeavour to ascertain if the latter's workaholic other half, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is cosying up to his attractive young colleague (Jessica Henwick) while Laura is raising their two young daughters. In the process, Felix and Laura chat about anything and everything, covering topics both important and trivial. They eat and drink, and do so in luxe spaces while Felix naturally captivates everyone in his orbit and turns everything into an adventure. Over the course of their investigative escapade, Felix helps Laura work through her struggles, too — although here, their own complicated relationship is actually one of them.

There's an immense sense of joy to Murray and Jones' pairing, and not just for Parks and Recreation fans pleased to see the sitcom's Ann Perkins and Mayor Gunderson share screentime (Jones also featured in A Very Murray Christmas as well). Felix and Laura's father-daughter bond has endured years of ups and downs, and nothing between them is perfect, but the actors' rapport makes every warm exchange and awkward moment feel authentic. That's one of the key aspects of On the Rocks, a film that serves up an instant-classic Murray performance on a platter, but never forgets that its story actually belongs to its female protagonist. Viewers spend time with Felix, and therefore Murray, because the movie's main character does — and enjoying the ebbs and flows of the duo's time together, whether cracking open caviar on a stakeout in a convertible or downing cocktails where Humphrey Bogart once proposed to Lauren Bacall, is all the more engaging because it's a back-and-forth tête-à-tête rather than a one-man show.

Another way to describe the central dynamic here: lived-in. As proved the case with Lost in Translation, that's as much a credit to Coppola as not only a screenwriter, but as a perceptive creative willing to strip bare her own life experiences, fictionalise them, and create something both thoughtful and moving. The daughter of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now's Francis Ford Coppola, she clearly knows a thing or two about flitting around town with a father with the world at his feet, and it shows — and she's not afraid to admit that she's been cast in her own dad's shadow. When Laura watches on as Felix is pulled over by the police, sweet-talks his way out of a ticket and even enlists their help giving his vintage Alfa Romeo a push-start, in fact, it's easy to imagine the real-life Coppola family equivalent.

Of course, this isn't the first time that the younger Coppola has drawn upon what she knows. Lost in Translation took ample cues from her experiences, including time spent feeling listless in Japan, plus the strain with her then-husband Spike Jonze. And, the Los Angeles-set Somewhere's focus on a Hollywood star and his pre-teen daughter found inspiration in her own childhood. Accordingly, On the Rocks follows their lead by tapping into rich personal depths. It may initially seem to tell a slight story, but that appearance is deceptive. The filmmaker is famously fond of relaying tales about comfortable lives and their corresponding problems — see also: Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring — but she has always been savvy to the ways that women are forced to respond to the men and the world around them. The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled make this point more forcefully; however, even with a wavering ending, it still lingers here as well.

On the Rocks is a film with layers of resonance and insight, but it is also a caper — and a sparkling, banter-filled, often screwball one at that. In other words, it's a delight that blends intimate truths with entertaining moments, and finds poignancy and comedy in daily routines, idle chats with other mothers (including with fellow Parks and Rec alum Jenny Slate), low-key spy antics and sudden getaways to Mexico alike. Murray's general Bill Murray-ness and all-round presence is crucial, obviously. So is the affectionate, glimmering lensing by Philippe Le Sourd (The Beguiled) that makes New York seem like a playground, and the upbeat but still contemplative soundtrack by Phoenix. Indeed, combine all of the above, and this is a Sofia Coppola movie through and through. It's a big call, but if she was ever going to remake the great German father-daughter film Toni Erdmann, this just might be the end result.

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