‘On the Rocks’ floats on by

I love Sofia Coppola. I love all of her movies, even the ones that people hate. I love the texture of her films — their intimacy, their insight. I love her impressionist color palette and her eclectic needle drops. I love how she blurs comedy and drama into a kind of lived-in melancholy. She doesn’t make movies; she collects and captures moments. Her films are like holding in a breath. And sometimes, I love her movies even more than I love her father’s, the director of “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Conversation,” Francis Ford Coppola.

I mention Francis — Can I call you Francis? — not to drag Sofia Coppola back behind her father’s shadow. The two might come from the same family, but as filmmakers, they hail from separate planets. I mention him only because her latest film, “On the Rocks” on Apple TV+, seems, in part, to have been inspired by him.

The film reteams Coppola with her “Lost in Translation” star, Bill Murray. The man needs no introduction; watching “On the Rocks,” it’s as if he isn’t acting. Rest assured, he is — Coppola’s patient close-ups seize his every last subtlety — but the role itself could call for no one else. He plays Felix, a geriatric New York playboy who can talk his way into a party just as smoothly as he can talk his way out of a speeding ticket.

But the movie isn’t about him. It’s about Laura, his daughter, played by Rashida Jones of “Parks and Recreation.” Laura is uptight and unhappy, and we get to know her not through dialogue, but through detail — the way she carefully arranges every paper on her desk, how she stares out the window of her chic New York apartment at nothing in particular.

Laura is a writer, but perhaps “trying to be a writer” is a better description. She’s not feeling herself, and she’s beginning to think that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), isn’t feeling her, either. It’s not long before she begins to suspect an affair, and Felix — a male chauvinist who knows a thing or two about affairs — convinces her to drop what she’s doing and spy on her husband with her old man.

The film is a comedic caper turned father-daughter adventure. It’s also a love letter to New York, a version of the city that no longer exists and probably never did, unless your average night on the town involved eating caviar in a retro Alfa Romeo convertible. But it’s also rather slight — a 90-minute pleasantry that feels almost like an afterthought compared to Coppola’s iconic film canon.

Still, “On the Rocks” is clearly personal for Coppola. While her father might not be a womanizer, his socialite status in Hollywood and frank conversations about romance were said to have informed Murray’s character. Murray, of course, is perfect, but Jones is just as magnetic. Channeling her dramatic work in underrated indies like “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” Jones is luminous, and the warmth of her performance makes you care about her character before you know anything about her. 

But the film overall disappoints. In much the same way that I fail to find the words to describe the Coppola films that I love, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t love this one. The tricky tonal shifts are choppier than they’ve ever been before, and the non-ending makes the movie feel meaningless. The best Sofia Coppola films disguise existential meditation as quotidian farce, but “On the Rocks” is the reverse: a studio comedy that adorns itself with her aesthetic without going much deeper than that.

Oh, well. It was worth the free trial! 6/10

This review was originally published on November 3, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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