Writer/director Sofia Coppola has established a name for herself over the past 20 years by making films that appeal to both mainstream and cinephile audiences. She often uses the trappings of everyday cinema to deliver stories that upend the expectations set by your typical movies.
That’s definitely the case with On the Rocks, which takes a somewhat banal story about a seemingly lifeless marriage and turns it on its head. Laura (Rashida Jones) is an author who’s stuck in a rut thanks to having to take care of her two kids, often without the presence of her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), whose business requires him to travel frequently.
A series of events that has Laura questioning Dean’s fidelity lead her to confide in her father, Felix (Bill Murray). Felix, whose track record on monogamy is horrendous, jumps at the chance to try to expose Dean, hiring a private eye and dragging Laura along on missions to track his movements.
Were this another film, whether or not Dean was cheating on Laura would be the end-all, be-all of the plot, but Coppola is interested in different things than that. In fact, the film is much more about Laura and Felix’s relationship than it is about that of Laura and Dean. Though the film doesn’t give much detail, it’s clear that Felix has always been more about words than action.
Nearly every person the two of them run into throughout the course of the film is someone Felix already knows or someone he is able to charm within a matter of seconds. And Laura’s reactions to those interactions indicate that this pattern is exhausting for her, as it allows him to get away with things for which most other people would be held accountable.
Coppola has a sharp eye for detail, layering in small moments that add up to something bigger. The moments with Laura and Dean’s kids are not important plotwise, but they enrich the meaning of both main relationships. Likewise, repeated one-sided conversations with another mother, Vanessa (Jenny Slate), as they wait to either drop off or pick up their kids at school give further insight into Laura’s state of mind.
As she demonstrated in Lost in Translation, Coppola knows just the right way to use the appealing-yet-noxious personality of Murray. As he’s shown for 40 years, from Caddyshack to Ghostbusters to What About Bob? to Groundhog Day to The Royal Tenenbaums, few actors have the ability to attract and repel at the same time as Murray does. Felix is a perfect complement to all of those other roles.
Jones has such a brightness about her that it’s a wonder she hasn’t been given more opportunities to show her talents on film. While she’s a mainstay on television, her film roles are few and far apart, with supporting roles in I Love You, Man and The Social Network as her most high-profile parts prior to this. She holds her own against Murray; the film wouldn’t work nearly as well without her performance.
The story of On the Rocks is interesting, but it’s the actors who really make it sing. While not transcendent like her earlier collaboration with Murray, this film demonstrates that Coppola remains one of the best directors working today.
On the Rocks is screening October 23-25 at Magnolia at the Modern. It will debut on Apple TV+ on October 23.