In Sofia Coppola’s new movie, On the Rocks, mum Laura (Rashida Jones) worries that her husband has another woman in his life. But it is Laura who has another man in her life: her father. Played by Bill Murray (who else?), he is an old-school bon viveur whose charm glosses over all personality defects. He co-opts Laura into a plot to catch out her cheating husband, or is it an excuse to spend more time with her?
Either way, it is time well spent: fathers and daughters rarely hang out together – at least not on screen. It is striking how seldom the relationship has been explored (no, Taken doesn’t count). Perhaps it’s no surprise, given how cinema has long been dominated by ambitious men who rarely had time for their families. But now the daughters are getting to tell their side of the story.
Looking back, many of the best father-daughter stories have been instigated by women anyway. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, say. Or Paper Moon: it was Peter Bogdanovich’s ex-wife Polly Platt who suggested he make the father-daughter crime caper, and that he cast Tatum and Ryan O’Neal (Tatum won an Oscar; her dad didn’t). Similarly, it was Jane Fonda who bought the rights to On Golden Pond, having identified with the play’s troubled father-daughter relationship (Henry Fonda won an Oscar; she didn’t).
Sofia Coppola knows this territory better than anyone. Her father Francis was no monster, but he was a colossally successful film-maker who embraced the excesses of the 1970s. He also threw his daughter to the wolves, somewhat, by casting her in The Godfather Part III. The critical pasting demolished Sofia’s career as an actor. As a director she explored the lost girl/father figure dynamic to great effect in Lost in Translation (though Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s bond went way beyond the familial), and to stultifying effect in 2010’s Somewhere, where self-absorbed Hollywood star Stephen Dorff gets a wake-up call when his young daughter comes to stay. It is also fitting that Coppola casts another child of a powerful showbiz patriarch in her latest film, in the form of Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy.
As parenting guides, many of these stories function as a “how not to do it”, filled as they are with flawed men, damaged daughters and dark relationships. Are things getting any better? Maybe not in On the Rocks, but perhaps in recent examples such as Toni Erdmann, a poignant but hilarious exercise in paternal bridge-building. Or coming up next, Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which documentary-maker Kirsten Johnson playfully comes to terms with her father’s imminent death by staging it in multiple ways while he is still alive. It is both joyous and moving, but what shines through is the love and respect dad and daughter clearly have for one another. It is possible after all.