All art is autobiographical, to some extent. Though obviously not every artwork is a direct reflection of the artist’s own life, the sum total of the artist’s experiences has to factor into the way they shape the artwork. So while a certain filmmaker’s oeuvre might not automatically re-tell the story of their lives, it’s certainly informed by it. Where things get more complicated is with something like Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s breakout 2003 film. Coppola didn’t necessarily live out that exact Japanese trip, but the film was certainly informed heavily by her marriage to Spike Jonze. Plenty of tabloid-oriented pundits crossed the Ts and dotted the Is on those particular parallels. This puts Coppola in a very particular position that’s in no way of her own doing — the second she makes a film about a character remotely like herself, everyone has to assume the movie is about her. Perhaps The Beguiled or Somewhere are more directly linked to her own feelings and concerns, but On the Rocks is about a 40-ish upper-middle-class New York writer and her rich, larger-than-life father — so what are we supposed to think?
Rashida Jones plays Laura, a novelist who lives in New York with her finance-guy husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) and their two daughters. Laura hasn’t been doing too much writing in recent years, having been tasked with more of the household tasks and the raising-children tasks as Dean’s business takes off, overtaking most of his waking hours. Laura feels that she and Dean are growing apart (especially after he crawls into bed one night, starts kissing her and abruptly stops, as if he realizes she’s not who he was meant to be kissing), so she turns to the one constant male presence in her life: her philandering millionaire father Felix (Bill Murray). Though not exactly a model of stability, Felix is at the very least painfully honest about who he is and what he stands for, and he becomes a particularly opinionated sounding board for his daughter’s insecurities about her marriage.
On the Rocks therefore takes the form of an ambling hang-out movie between father and daughter, Dean’s perceived infidelities becoming a sort of bonding experience for the two. There’s an easy relationship here that a lesser filmmaker would be drawn to immediately: Laura as the harried, neurotic housewife whose entire being revolves around the way her father wasn’t around (the dreaded “daddy issues” of yore) and Felix as the heartless, carefree playboy who cannot and will not look his own failings in the eye.
Sofia Coppola develops a much different relationship between them: Felix is depicted as a self-conscious blowhard, a man very much aware of his own failings who can express sincere regret about past actions while also accepting them as an inevitable by-product of who he is. Conversely, Laura seems to have long since accepted her father for who he is and understood that, while he is probably incapable of providing everything she may have expected, he’s perhaps more insightful and empathetic than he appears on the surface.
The peculiar, idiosyncratic relationship between the leads does much of the heavy lifting for On the Rocks, which is otherwise curiously lacking in momentum and the type of granular detail that often makes its way into Coppola’s films. Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of making a film about well-to-do Manhattanites in 2020, but the entirety of On the Rocks is swathed in a curiously antiseptic Goop / Refinery29 aesthetic that gives the whole film an airless feel. Granted, Coppola has never been in the business of telling organic stories about the working class, so it’s probably a little unrealistic to expect her to suddenly turn into Ken Loach, but there’s a distancing effect at play here that’s exacerbated by the film’s curious lack of forward momentum.
On one hand, kudos to Coppola for not falling into an overly contrived screwball comedy lane. It’s easy to imagine the kind of heightened slapstick that might result from Rashida Jones and her aging father trying to catch her husband in flagrante delicto. On the other hand, the film does follow that kind of structure but attacks it with exactly the kind of laid-back flair that it uses for the rest of the film. The last act (which, mysteriously, mirrors the entirety of the abysmal Nasim Pedrad vehicle Desperados) just comes across as limp and unearned. I don’t know if it’s possible for a movie to be altogether too relaxed and too chill, but On the Rocks never really picks up in the way it should. Jones and Murray are, as to be expected, extremely magnetic and charismatic leads, and their interplay forms the crux of everything that’s enjoyable about On the Rocks.
Essentially, the final product is what betrays the fact that On the Rocks may not be as personal as one would like to assume. For all of its pleasant humour, the film doesn’t feel nearly as lived-in and textured as it should. Again, Coppola is not exactly in the realm of BBC kitchen-sink dramas; some level of perfume-ad gloss is to be expected from her work, but that type of gloss seems counterintuitive when it comes to a film that seems to tell such an intimate story. On the Rocks is a pleasant diversion, but one gets the feeling that it could’ve been much more. ■
On the Rocks is on Apple TV Plus as of Friday, Oct. 23. Watch the trailer here:
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