There’s a point in the lightweight, but very enjoyable On the Rocks where Rashida Jones’ character asks her father, played by Bill Murray, “Was it worth it?” This comes over an hour into the 96-minute movie, which opens with an idyllic look at a wedding day, before turning into a madcap dash to determine whether or not infidelity is taking place. When given the question, Murray does what he’s been so willing to do in his late-career films – find that perfect balance between his natural sense of humor and the affected look on his face best seen in the way his eyes reveal a layer of sadness. While not approaching the sort of defining layers of depth seen in director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, On the Rocks still finds ways to come alive beyond its semi-screwball plotting.
The aforementioned wedding day belongs to Jones’ Laura and Marlon Wayans’ Dean. Cut to several years later, and the two are living in New York with two young children. Laura is a writer, while Dean is finding new success at his ad company, causing him to work longer hours with his team, including a new co-worker (Jessica Henwick). While being assured by her friends that there’s likely nothing to worry about, Laura’s father, Felix (Murray), is not so convinced. Having lived a life as a charming, wealthy man, who left his wife in pursuit of others, Laura has strong feelings about her father’s ways, but unwittingly teams up with him for a low-key adventure tracking Dean to find out the truth.
Not counting Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas, which played more like a musical variety show, this cinematic reunion between Murray and Coppola almost plays like a spiritual successor to Lost in Translation. Once he enters the film, Murray has the impression of that character having found a sense of place in his older age and is now more content to embrace life, dealing with past mistakes in his own way. It makes for a fun foil to place with Jones. While obviously the “straight man” in this pairing, the two have relaxed chemistry with each other, allowing their plotting to spy on Dean to play out more like a hang-out movie, rather than some sort of rich person thriller.
Yes, one can look at this film as an example of entitlement separating people like Felix and Laura from the rest of society, where their issues feel superfluous by comparison. There’s even an argument to be made that Coppola understands this and has some light commentary taking place in that regard (an encounter with police plays differently than it would have months earlier, especially since it’s played for laughs). However, assigning the term “frivolous” to a film like this would be going too far.
There are breaks this film takes from the ongoing escapade Laura and Felix take part in for the sake of some introspection. This is very much a film about a woman attempting to understand her role as a mother dealing with writer’s block, and having more distance from the man she married than she’s used to. At the same, her parent is a man with a magnetic effect on all around him but is still challenged by a daughter who knows what he’s put his family through. That said, this is not a film with room for acerbic wit the way you may find in a Noah Baumbach film (though, given the role New York plays, I’m sure he has a couple of characters verbally sparring a few blocks over).
Rather than get into the messiness of things on a deeper level, Coppola allows the characters to express themselves, have moments of regret, and clarity to reflect on, yet still maintain a friendly status quo. At the same time, Coppola takes a very naturalistic approach to this mid-life New York setting. There’s a matter-of-fact presentation to all of the scenes. This adds some great comedic rhythm to the movie (such as an ongoing running gag with Jenny Slate), in addition to holding onto an appealing tone.
And that’s the other thing – this movie is very funny. Murray, 70-years-old, is the loosest he’s been on screen in some time. He presents a level of warmth approaching levels of ridiculous in the eyes of Jones’ Laura. And yet, for all his ways, it’s hard to argue with the friendly presence he has. Some may be able to see right through him. One can trace the parts of this character that track with some of his early 80s character roles. If anything, that merely informs more of who this older character used to be and has evolved into.
Jones does well to keep up, though it’s hard for anyone not to be overshadowed by Murray. Meanwhile, even though appeal for his zanier parts may vary, Wayans (once again) proves his worth as a solid actor as far as playing a man who may or may not be sending all the wrong signals. His involvement in a company staffed with younger folks may be proving awkward for Laura, but there’s an interesting balance in trying to arrive at a proper resolution for this supposed mystery.
That in mind, while On the Rocks may wrap up a bit too tidy for some, I appreciate the sort of in-and-out mentality of a film like this. The weight of other Coppola films does not quite apply to this movie regardless of how closely some of it may even tie to Coppola’s own life. Instead, there’s a reasonably low-stakes romp taking place, and the players are doing their part to keep it all together while adding a fair amount of humor.
On the Rocks had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 22, 2020. It is scheduled for a limited theatrical release on October 2, 2020, followed by a digital streaming release on October 23, 2020, by Apple TV+.