There are times where films about the distance between parents and their grown children don’t have to make one party or the other the villain. And in the case of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s latest, On the Rocks, no one is painted in an unforgivably bad light; the enemy is simply human doubt, and in the case of New York City dweller and writer Laura (Rashida Jones), she’s feeling distanced from her seemingly adoring husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), because he travels a great deal and works long hours. Because of this, she begins to wonder if he’s having an affair with a frequently mentioned co-worker—a fear she makes the mistake of sharing with her unreliable but adoring father Felix (Bill Murray, in full-on adorably charming mode), who convinces her that the best course of action is to spy on Dean until they catch him in the act.
As much as this might sound like the setup to an old-school Woody Allen piece, On the Rocks sees Coppola (Somewhere, Lost in Translation, The Beguiled) centering less on the state of Laura’s marriage and more on the ways in which her upbringing (raised primarily by her mother) has fueled fears about being abandoned again, casting doubts about her own marriage. Felix is an unapologetic ladies’ man, and his tendency to stray is what caused him to leave Laura’s mother when his daughter was quite young. But he’s also just an all-around charming fellow, who can talk his way out of police stops and into all manner of special situations by finding connections with total strangers. It’s a gift that has served him well with everyone but his daughter, who loves him but sees right through his bullshit.
Laura makes the mistake of confiding in her father about her marital woes. He launches a full-scale investigation that turns up nothing more concrete than her initial suspicions, but he’s so giddy that he can assist her in some way that he latches on like a pitbull to the idea that Dean is cheating. Coppola is smart enough to allow Dean’s behavior to be innocuous enough that the guilt could go either way. He does seem to spend a great deal of work-related time with this glamorous female co-worker, but the fact that he’s so public about it might also be a sign that he has nothing to hide. It doesn’t help that Laura feels stuck as a writer and is constantly seeking outside distraction from committing to the writing process.
Naturally, it’s wonderful to see Coppola re-team with her Lost in Translation lead Murray, but the real heart and soul of the film is Jones, whose career has been largely playing the perfect straight-woman in big- and small-screen comedies. In On the Rocks, she’s strong and independent but never afraid to show that being in a relationship can be taxing to the self-esteem, especially when your partner is in the midst of a string of successes. Still, as much as the relationship insight is quite impressive, it’s great to simply observe Jones and Murray prowl the streets of New York together, having adventures they never got to have when Laura was growing up. There are moments when she realizes that as much as she’s enjoying their time together, the reason the outings are so much fun is because they’re better than her childhood; that brings her back down to earth and the state of her marriage rather quickly.
On the Rocks isn’t about whether an infidelity is occurring or not; it cares far more about this woman moving beyond the crushing disappointment of having a father who has time to connect with everyone but her, and how she’s going to balance that relationship after this marital mystery is solved. There isn’t a false note in this film that doesn’t require you to choose sides in order to settle into the narrative. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it doesn’t conclude with any of the characters making seismic-event shifts in their personalities. Everyone learns a lesson and makes slight adjustments in order to better themselves in the eyes of those who love them the most. It’s a lot like life in that way. The film finds ways to be funny, romantic, heartwarming and quietly devastating all in just a few short minutes—again, not unlike life.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and begins streaming on AppleTV+ on October 23.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!