‘On the Rocks’ Review: Sofia Coppola’s Marriage Story
Felix, Bill Murray’s character in On the Rocks, is the man Phil Connors aspired to be at the start of Groundhog Day. He’s enormously wealthy, with a personal driver ready to take him anywhere at a moment’s notice. He’s a cultured art dealer who never seems to need to work. He’s a grandfather, probably in his 70s, yet he remains irresistible to women. While he loves to pontificate about the animalistic nature of humanity’s biological urges— men feel a compulsion to mate, he claims, and not necessarily monogamously — he does not possess the sort of soulful enlightenment that Phil Connors finds after thousands of Groundhog Days. That seems quite all right with Felix.
Felix isn’t On the Rocks’ main character, but he is its most interesting one, the one who seems to have the most to say and the most to hide; the one that writer/director Sofia Coppola gives her strongest comedic material and saddest monologues; the one who’s played by Bill Murray in yet another performance that feels so tossed off and yet so finely tuned. It is not difficult to see why people are drawn to Felix; he radiates that rumpled, accidental cool that Murray’s pumped out onscreen for decades. In one scene, Felix croons a love song in a bar, accompanied by a man on guitar. Felix does not have a very good singing voice, yet the audience is rapt. Like Bill Murray, he’s a born performer.
He spends most of the film performing for his daughter, who is now a wife and mom with kids of her own. That’s Laura (Rashida Jones), who lives in Lower Manhattan with Dean (Marlon Wayans) and their two impossibly cute children. The movie opens with Laura and Dean’s wedding, as they gaze into each other’s eyes with total love, then sneak away from the reception for a romantic skinny dip in a private pool. Smash cut to several years later, and domestic bliss ain’t too blissful. Dean’s consumed with work and travel; Laura feels disconnected. One night, he returns late from a work trip, possibly under the influence, and kisses her — only to pull back when Laura speaks to him and he recognizes her voice. Did Dean think he was in bed with someone else? And why did he return from his latest trip with a woman’s toiletry bag in his luggage?
Dean’s got an explanation for that. He’s got an explanation for everything. Laura’s still suspicious — and with a dad like Felix, it’s easy to see why. As a man who insists he knows men and their innate susceptibility to cheating from experience, Felix is suspicious too. After he catches wind of this small mystery, he begins to spur Laura to investigate further. Pretty soon father and daughter are tailing her husband around New York as they try to suss out whether Dean might be carrying on an affair.
On the Rocks’ opening scenes wryly observe the details of marriage and young parenthood with a keen eye: The burdening routines of school, daycare, and meals; the pressure and disappointment of bad birthday presents and chemistry-free dates; the fleeting moments of intimacy interrupted by the shrill wails of unhappy kids. When Laura grows suspicious, and Felix enters the equation, Coppola pushes the story into screwball comedy territory, with the father-daughter team snooping in increasingly outlandish ways. (They’re posh about it too; they eat caviar in his vintage convertible during a stakeout.) The second half doesn’t necessarily match with the first. That could be part of Coppola’s goal; to give Laura a taste of the excitement she’s been missing in her relationship.
Although it’s easy to read at least some autobiographical elements into Laura — she’s been married about as long as Coppola; they have the same number of kids, she comes from a rich family with a famous, charismatic father — the role isn’t really a showy one for Jones. Murray’s the one who gets the witty dialogue and the handsome clothes; Jones is in full mom mode, and mostly responds to Felix’s musings on relationships with frustration and scolding. When Dean’s possible infidelity leads to a confrontation between husband and wife, their conversation is oddly anticlimactic. The ending the film arrives at feels a little wrong for the journey that Coppola took us on to get there.
The much better dustup is between Laura and Felix, who loves his daughter but obviously has ulterior motives in helping her keep tabs on Dean. Although Laura thinks she understands her dad, he may not be quite as transparent as she thinks — or as simplistic as Felix himself believes all men to be in their singular drive to mate and conquer and possess women. With Dean off on his own, possibly up to no good, this movie that looked like it was about a marriage becomes more about a parent/child relationship, and about this very complicated dad who, by his own measure, is fighting against his own DNA to be a better father.
During one of Laura and Felix’s conversations — this one in a plush Manhattan bar sipping martinis, an image that could not feel more out of place in 2020 if the bar was on Mars — Felix insists that he’s going deaf, but only to female voices. It’s their higher pitch, he claims, that his aging ears no longer receive. Felix says chauvinistic stuff like that all throughout On the Rocks. He might really be going deaf. Yet he still hears his daughter very clearly.
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