REVIEW – ‘On the Rocks’ is a breezy, blissful delight that feels like a film from another time

Ever since 2003’s Lost in Translation, many of us have been patiently waiting for writer/director Sofia Coppola and universal treasure Bill Murray to once again collaborate. Sure, we had the absurd festive delight that was their 2015 Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas, but the long wait for Coppola and Murray to join forces on a feature film project is finally at an end. As a filmmaker, Coppola sets the bar so high that something as light and casual as On the Rocks may prove somewhat of a disappointment for some, especially for those expecting another stirring masterpiece to match Coppola and Murray’s 2013 collaboration.

A charmingly witty and breezily entertaining father-daughter comedy that’s an easy Sunday afternoon watch, On the Rocks is undoubtedly Coppola’s lightest work to date. For better or worse, Coppola isn’t entirely challenging herself with this film. After the menacing Gothic darkness of her 2017 offering, The Beguiled, you can’t judge her too harshly for wanting to create something a little airier. While it’s an endlessly enjoyable romp, On the Rocks lacks the true substance or depth of Coppola’s previous work, but that’s far from fatal when the ride is this much fun.

Thirty-something New York writer Laura (an underused Rashida Jones) is in a rut. Struggling through a crippling bout of writer’s block, the mother of two adorable daughters (Liyanna Muscat and Alexandra Mary Reimer) begins to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) is losing interest in their marriage. Dean works long hours at his tech-company job and is constantly taking work-related trips out of town, fuelling Laura’s suspicions something is awry.

When Laura discovers the toiletries bag of Dean’s gorgeous colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick) in her husband’s luggage, she becomes convinced he’s having an affair. In her hour of need, Laura confides her doubts to her doting father, Felix (an effortlessly delightful Murray), who instantly agrees Dean must be cheating on his daughter, namely due to his own dismal failures with monogamy.

A former art dealer and current wealthy playboy of New York City who treats the town as his own personal playland (“It must be very nice to be you,” Laura wryly laments at one point), Felix insists the Laura immediately begin spying on her husband in a bid to confirm his potentially adulterous ways. It’s not long before father and daughter are following the unsuspecting Dean all over town, which may also just be an excuse for Felix to visit a series of his favourite swanky Manhattan hot spots.

A blissful delight that feels like a film from another time, On the Rocks is ultimately a throwback to the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Coppola cites 1934’s The Thin Man as a direct influence), particularly when Felix and Laura find themselves in all sorts of absurdist mayhem as they stalk Dean during a supposedly work-related dinner with Fiona. You can’t help but chuckle at Felix’s attempt at camouflage by way of leaving his town car at home and arriving at Laura’s door in a vintage red Alpha Romeo convertible with a basket of caviar and champagne as a stakeout treat. Subtlety is not Felix’s strongpoint.

Filmed in the summer of 2019, the film also seems inherently retro by virtue of inadvertently capturing the bustling streets and quiet majesty of pre-coronavirus New York City. Filmed with impeccable style and sophistication by Philippe Le Sourd, On the Rocks echoes the work of Woody Allen where Manhattan is essentially a character all of her own. For those of us with an infinity with the Big Apple, it’s hard not to wistfully swoon at the sight of the city without the constraints of COVID-19. Still bustling with the beating heart that’s been silenced for the better part of 2020, everything here elicits a bittersweet sense of nostalgia for a simpler time that now seems like a lifetime ago.

While On The Rocks is absolutely Laura’s story, it’s odd Jones is saddled with an underdeveloped straight man character with the barest of character arcs. Jones is always a joy to watch but there’s something lacking in her performance that’s mostly constructed by little more than a series of exacerbated reactions to everything occurring around here. When Coppola hands her the occasional moment of genuine emotion, Jones is electric, but these are sadly few and far between. Coppola’s screenplay fails to offer a satisfying conclusion for Laura, with her journey ending with an odd indifference that almost makes the entire film seem rather redundant.

Jones’ chemistry with Murray is deliciously sublime, with the pair entirely believable as father and daughter. Perhaps it’s born of Jones having intimate experience with a ultra-swarve famous father herself, but it’s wondrous to behold Laura’s complication connection to her father that’s equal parts adoration and frustration. Unsurprisingly, the role fits Murray like a glove and Coppola innately knows how to elicit a knockout performance from the comedian.

There’s clearly a dash of Coppola’s personal experience with her esteemed filmmaker father injected here. She takes joy in exploring Laura and Felix’s playful banter, occasional conflict, and deep mutual affection that’s potentially ripped right out of a Coppola family dinner. A smooth-talking semi-chauvinist from other era, Felix could easily have been a rather detestable asshole. But Murray is so endlessly lovable in this role and plays Felix’s outdated flaws with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

Despite his many misgivings in Laura’s childhood, Felix is determined to make up for lost time, and you get the feeling the entire quest to uncover Dean’s potential flilandering is nothing more than one big ruse to spend some quality time with his beloved daughter. But the fact he’s willing to drop everything and rush to his daughter’s side is incredibly endearing, and Murray crafts Felix as the father we’d all love to have.

Murray nails his portrayal of a charming Manhattanite with the gift for the gab, typified by his masterful ability to sweet talk his way out of a traffic violation by wrapping the police around his little figure with his old school charm. Could Coppola once again earn Murray an Oscar nomination? He certainly makes a strong case for consideration, if the Academy can ignore their frustrating inclination to dismiss comedic performances.

For all this film’s silly vintage comedy (Jenny Slate almost steals the entire film with a running gag as a grating blabbermouth mother Laura tolerates during school drop-off), On the Rocks shines when Jones and Murray are given lengthy, sophisticated conversations that highlight their vast differences. Coppola’s knack for smart, sharp dialogue is deftly on display in these moments, so it’s a shame such attention wasn’t paid to fleshing out Laura into a fully dimensional character.

Regardless of this film’s minor foibles, On the Rocks provides the giddy dose of entertainment we need right now. It’s purposely light and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, even from a director known for tackling heavier topics. A love letter to fathers and daughters everywhere and pre-COVID New York City, it’s a personal piece from Coppola that offers Murray the chance to do what he does best. In a year of such darkness, that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Distributor: A24/AppleTV+
Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate, Liyanna Muscat, Alexandra Reimer, Anna Reimer, Barbara Bain, Juliana Canfield
Director: Sofia Coppola
Producers: Youree Henley, Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd
Production Design: Anne Ross
Costume Design: Stacey Battat
Music: Phoenix

Editing: Sarah Flack
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: 2nd October 2020 (Palace Cinemas), 23rd October 2020 (AppleTV+)