Four stars for On the Rockson September 25, 2020 at 9:30 am

Bill Murray stars in Sophia Coppola’s latest film, a father-daughter story that “carries a whiff of unintended nostalgia” for a maskless 2019, writes Caryn James.


The Bill Murray we know today has an image – droll, wise, sensitive – that was cemented by his role as a deadpan, world-weary actor in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. It was a breakthrough for Coppola and positioned Murray as a serious actor as well as a brilliant comedian. Seventeen years on, he is the shining centre of On the Rocks, Coppola’s lovely, elegant, funny little film with a throwaway plot.

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The film is set in a world of privilege and sophistication. Rashida Jones plays Laura, married with two small daughters, who suspects that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is cheating on her with a co-worker. She asks her dad for advice, but he is like no other on-screen father. Murray plays Felix as a mischievous, charming womaniser. A semi-retired art dealer, he is a throwback to an earlier era, who turns up outside her Soho building in a car with a driver, and greets her with an unmistakably loving, “Hey, kiddo.” As the car whisks them off, he warbles the theme song to the classic film Laura in his off-kilter Murray style. The scene and the entire performance do not land as self-referential, but as playing to Murray’s unique strengths. Only he could defend caveman behaviour and make it not quite serious. “He’s a man, it’s nature,” Felix says about Dean. “Males are forced to fight, to dominate and to impregnate all females.” He says this during a martini-fuelled lunch. Laura rolls her eyes as he innocently flirts with the waitress.

Jones is a charming foil to Murray, even though Laura’s character tilts toward cliche. A blocked writer who got a book contract without having written a word (writers everywhere will howl with laughter at the very idea), she is harried by raising two small daughters, and feels abandoned while Dean travels around starting up a flourishing company. She is a bit of a sad sack, and one step away from wearing mom jeans. Murray arrives almost 20 minutes into the film and brings it to life.

Felix’s outlandish idea is to spy on Dean, trailing him around New York. As the story becomes more madcap, he picks up Laura while driving a little red Alfa Romeo convertible, wearing a racing cap and bringing a picnic of caviar so they can lurk and see where Dean goes after his business dinner.

Despite that intrigue, On the Rocks is practically a distillation of Coppola’s Lost in Translation style. Each scene is compact and feels lived in, without any urgent narrative drive. That elegant surface makes it seem like a trifle, but there are layers beneath. The deepest and most emotional theme is not about Laura’s listless marriage. She worries that Dean doesn’t find her sexy anymore, and tells Felix, “I’m just the buzzkill waiting to schedule things.” There’s a tinge of self-pity there, along with some self-awareness, but the marriage scenes are on the nose and familiar.

Like Coppola’s underrated Somewhere, On the Rocks is really a father-daughter story. The film begins with a voiceover from Murray over a black screen. Felix says to Laura as a child: “Remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You’re mine until you get married,” adding after a perfect millisecond’s pause, “Then you’re still mine.” Coppola’s screenplay gives us Laura’s daughter’s-eye view. She is clear-sighted about Felix’s flaws and also about how loving he is. He will do anything for her, and never hints that her possibly crumbling marriage might be even a little bit her fault. The film’s trajectory follows her as she learns to stop being Daddy’s Little Girl and to deal with him as an adult; in one scene, Jones and Murray bring a piercing, painful honesty to an argument between them. The film’s ending is easy to see from the beginning, but plot has never seemed to interest Coppola much, so that weakness hardly matters.

Throughout a dazzling career, Coppola’s style has varied, from the colourful exuberance of Marie Antoinette, to the Southern Gothic The Beguiled. On the Rocks feels more personal. Her own father, of course, is Francis Ford Coppola, which is relevant because she has said in interviews that the film was partly inspired by his generation of men and their outmoded attitudes toward women. And her unlikely childhood, living for a time in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York while her father made movies, echoes through her films in various fictional forms. In Somewhere, Elle Fanning’s character stays with her father in an elegant hotel. In the delightful Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas, Murray plays a version of himself giving a show in a New York nightclub, the kind of cafe-society setting that was part of Sofia Coppola’s reality.

There is a similar retro tinge to On the Rocks, which looks like a glorious movie version of New York, and whose characters don’t bother to acknowledge how privileged and hermetic their world is. Felix’s profession gives Coppola an excuse to litter the background with paintings by artists like Cy Twombly and even Monet (loaned, the credits say, from a private collection). After a cocktail party with Felix in one of those art-filled apartments, Laura walks alone down Fifth Avenue, past lights shining from windows of luxury stores. Circles of headlights from traffic behind her resemble an abstract painting. It is a beautiful, wistful scene. As Laura walks maskless on those Manhattan streets, On the Rocks carries a whiff of unintended nostalgia for the glamorous, soigne New York of 2019.

On the Rocks is on limited theatrical release from 2 October, and streaming on Apple TV + from 23 October.


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