As Sofia Coppola has gotten older, so too have her protagonists, which makes it easy to see them—and their plights—as reflections of the aspirations and anxieties currently preoccupying the auteur. That’s once again true with On the Rocks, the story of a 39-year-old writer struggling with insecurity, suspicions about her husband, and the long shadow cast by her larger-than-life father, here played by Coppola’s Lost in Translation headliner Bill Murray with more mega-watt vivacity than he’s shown in years. Premiering online at the New York Film Festival before debuting in theaters (on October 2) and on Apple TV+ (on October 23), it’s another highly personal effort that, if less substantial and swoon-worthy than her best work, remains a fine, frothy portrait of one woman’s midlife crisis.
Laura (Rashida Jones) is a Manhattanite who’s put her writing career on the back burner in order to devote her time and energy to her two daughters, all as spouse Dean (Marlon Wayans) burns the midnight oil on his upstart business. Though Dean repeatedly encourages her to dive into her still-nascent book project, Laura has little motivation to do so when her days are spent picking up stray clothes and toys off the floor, shepherding her brood to school—where she’s forced to endure the relationship-drama blather of Vanessa (Jenny Slate)—and completing the typical chores of a stay-at-home mom. Far from the blissful young bride who leapt into a pool on her wedding night while wearing only her underwear and veil (as we witness in a short and sweet prologue), Laura is now a woman adrift, searching for the sense of self she apparently lost on the journey to domesticity.
Coppola conveys this stuck-in-a-rut state of affairs in concise gestures, and then amplifies Laura’s discontent when Dean returns home from one of his many work trips, wakes her up with kisses, and then suddenly acts surprised to realize that he’s making out with his wife. In light of the fact that Dean collaborates closely with pretty young colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick), this incident sparks immediate infidelity suspicions. Friends pooh-pooh those thoughts, but in a crucial mistake, Laura also seeks the counsel of her single dad Felix (Murray), a habitually unfaithful former art gallery owner who immediately tells her, “You need to start thinking like a man.” After she discovers a woman’s toiletry bag in Dean’s suitcase (containing body oil), she meets Felix for lunch. Amid incessant flirting with their former ballerina-turned-waitress, and pontificating about the ancient origins of men’s opinions vis-à-vis the ideal female form, Felix makes it clear that he’ll begin looking into his son-in-law’s shady behavior.
From the get-go, Murray is nothing short of magnetic, providing such a live-wire jolt to the proceedings that you can practically feel On the Rocks come alive upon his initial entrance. Well-dressed, gregarious, and possessed with the unflappable confidence of a Don Juan who’s always sure he’s the coolest guy in the room, Murray veers from complimenting Laura to plotting spy games to eyeing every female in the vicinity with such easygoing charisma that it’s hard to not get caught up in his sleuthing scheme. Laura also finds his self-assurance irresistible, even though her affection is colored by bitterness, born from the fact that she’s taking advice about a cheating spouse from a dad who left her and her mother years ago to chase tail.
That Murray is doing a thinly veiled riff on Coppola’s own illustrious dad Francis is difficult to ignore, and yet his star turn never veers into impression; his Felix is a full-bodied jumble of contradictions, at once loving and selfish, captivating and off-putting, loyal and untrustworthy, all wrapped up in old-school New York swagger and style. As their attempts to pry into Dean’s life escalate—highlighted by a car chase through New York City in a dying red sports car—Murray proves a constant delight. It’s too bad, then, that Jones is On the Rocks’ rather milquetoast center of attention. Given their characters’ relationship, it’s fitting that the actress seems at once enchanted to be in the company of, and thoroughly overshadowed by, her co-star. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as embodied by Jones, Laura comes off as tepid and unremarkable.
The desire to be desired is central to On the Rocks, since it’s what broke up Felix’s first marriage, and now threatens to send Laura into a tailspin of mistrust. Also key is Laura’s related quest to find herself, which is complicated by her fears about having tied the knot and started a family with a two-timer like her father—whom she both adores and resents. Coppola digs into the messy thoughts and feelings of married middle-age, when you’re not sure if you’re still attracted to your partner, you’re even less sure they’re interested in you, and your sense of individuality is challenged by dominating roles as a parent and a spouse. Better still, she does so with a light touch, keeping the action spry even as her characters confront unpleasant realities about themselves and each other.
On the Rocks again confirms Coppola’s skill at evoking the inner lives of women struggling with self-definition. Yet in aiming to be a fizzy and jaunty romantic lark laced with sneaky emotional and psychological heft, the film winds up somewhat caught in the middle, neither weighty enough to make a truly poignant impact, nor zany enough to elicit routine laughter, especially when Murray’s not around and the focus turns to the generally unconvincing Wayans. Poised and polished, it gets a bit bogged down in pleasant earnestness, thereby neutering both its ridiculousness and its pathos. Though a late, wacko trip to Mexico appears primed to deliver some genuine absurdity, the results are more of the same: mildly sweet and amusing, with only a gentle punchline as the payoff.
Still, when Murray really gets grooving, be it talking about random past flings or his dislike of infinity pools, On the Rocks operates as a low-key charmer. Moreover, in its snapshots of towering skyscrapers, crowded sidewalks, and bustling city streets spied out of car windows, Coppola turns her film into a dreamy love letter to Manhattan, here imagined as a twinkling, tantalizing wonderland of always-available babysitters, swanky bars, and cozy apartment homes where dreams ultimately come true.