• Ben Keightley

On the Rocks (2020) - Sofia Coppola

There is always the appearance of an effortlessly cool aura that Sofia Coppola films exude and there is no better actor to embody that than Bill Murray. This is their third collaboration, including Lost in Translation (2003) and A Very Murray Christmas (2015). It's to Lost in Translation that the obvious comparisons will be made, but On the Rocks is a very different film. The effortlessly cool style Coppola so painstakingly imbues her films with can often distract from the very subtle emotional and psychological subtext which drive her films, and demonstrate the real brilliance of her writing and direction.

Here, Coppola is once again viewing the world through a father-daughter relationship which is endearing, loving by also somewhat dysfunctional. Here, Laura (Rashida Jones), a mother struggling to find her identity as she is consumed with parental duties reconnects with her larger-than-life father (Bill Murray), when she reluctantly confides in him her suspicions that her husband may be having an affair. This simple premise may sound common and unoriginal but in the hands of a director and writer of Coppola's sensitivity and originality, and with a cast as accomplished as Jones and Murray what she delivers is a film which is equally fun, light-hearted, and frothy and deep, emotional and moving.

The skill and understatement with which Coppola unfolds her comedy left me at times awestruck. The film opens with a wonderful concise setup; telling us that the romance has evaporated from Laura's marriage to Dean (an excellent Damon Wayans). A slow tracking shot reveals tossed aside clothes on their wedding night before gently dissolving into children's clothes and toys being picked up in a messy New York apartment. We are then thrust into the monotonous and repetitious life of Laura, rushing in the morning to get her two children ready for school; getting stuck listening to fellow mother Vanessa (an always brilliant Jenny Slate) jabber away about her failed dating life. Following this uninspiring and stressful start to each day, Laura sits down at her desk and struggles with writer's block as she attempts to start her next book. Meanwhile, Dean is frequently absent from both Laura and their children's lives as he works long hours, socialising, and takes business trips trying to make his start-up a success. Dean and Laura barely communicate with each other, and intimacy, when it is expressed, feels more friendly than flirtatious or loving. Laura is left with the responsibility of being a parent and raising their children, and as a result, has lost all sense of herself. All of this is convincingly real, and highlights, without ever labouring the point, about how women have parental responsibility thrust upon them while men maintain a level of autonomy and themselves when children arrive. This is concept is beautifully echoed through Laura's father Felix, who is a womanising, flirtatious man who can drop everything to come to the aid of his daughter, and rarely thinks of the responsibilities and lack of freedom being a parent brings into your life.

Somewhat surprisingly, Laura is her rut, begins to suspect Dean may be having an affair with a young, attractive colleague in his start. She makes the mistake of mentioning this to her doting father, and he swings into town to strategise with her about how she needs to get ahead of the inevitable revelation.

It's here the film comes into its own and really finds its groove. Jones and Murray have immeasurable chemistry and their complex relationship; Felix cheated on their mother and remains a flirtatious lothario who, if it wasn't delivered with the charming cool of Bill Murray, would be a cringeworthy leach. But there is clear love and affection between then. Felix absolutely adores Laura and if he is blind and ignorant to the true effect her current life has landed her in, he is nevertheless determined to guide and support her through this stressful and potentially life-changing moment. Equally, despite her father's indiscretions and affairs, and the obvious effect its had on, Laura loves and adores her father as well. This comes across exceptionally well in the film and I could have just watched them sparring with each other over cocktails and dinner for the 90mins run time and would not have been disappointed. What makes their relationship work so well is that Jones is Murray's equal and so never lets his comedic genius and delivery overpower the dynamic. Jones arguably stills most of the laughs as Laura watches on incongruously as Felix apparently floats through life nary a care in the world, and no scenario he can't talk his way out of. One particular high point seems him charm a police officer who has pulled him over for speeding.

As the film heads towards its climax I began to realise that whether or not Dean was having an affair wasn't really important. What was important was how compelling and captivating the relationship between Laura and her father had become, and how through their excitement and adventurous investigations into Dean's fidelity Laura had allowed a distraction and purpose (outside of being a mother) to come into her life. Laura also learns that, unlike her father, she can approach and deal with these challenges herself, in her own way and on her own terms. Laura willfully allows her father to whisk her away on an adventure to help lift her out of her rut, and although doing so may in the short term have been irresponsible and immature, it helps her face Dean directly and move forward in her life with a renewed vigour.

Sofia Coppola is a master of the nuanced, understated character study that feels light and effortless, frothy and simple, but in truth examines and reveals deep reservoirs of character, emotion and psychologically. The title of her latest being a case in point. On the Rocks could as easily refer to how Felix prefers his drink as it does Laura's perception of the state of her marriage. On the surface On the Rocks may feel lightweight, but given the attention, it deserves it offers something rich and meaningful.

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