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Non-Review Review: On the Rocks

On the Rocks is a disarmingly charming film.

Sofia Coppola’s latest is built around the relationship between Laura and her father Felix. Laura is happily married with two young girls, but has begun to suspect that her marriage is dysfunctional. There are small clues. Her husband Dean seems less interested in physical intimacy, and has been spending more time at the office with his co-worker Fiona. As her suspicions mount, Laura reaches out to her father Felix, who has spent his life as a debonair playboy with a somewhat cynical perspective of the masculine psyche.

Daddy daughter day.

On the Rocks is an earnest dramedy, following the dynamic between Laura and Felix as they launch an investigation into her husband’s potential affair. It’s elevated by two superb central performances, a clever script, and direction that allows its characters and its actors room to work. There’s a surprising amount of honest and introspection in On the Rocks, but also a surprising earnestness. On the Rocks is a surprisingly empathic film, never judging or condemning its characters as easily as it might.

The results are engaging and heartening. In some ways, particularly given the central dynamic of an older man played by Bill Murray and a younger woman managing her own life crisis, it’s hard not to see On the Rocks as a companion piece to Coppola’s breakout film Lost in Translation. However, there’s a lot more maturity and reflection at play here, a kindness and gentleness that feels earned through the two decades between then and now.

“Enjoying a nice Mar-team-ee.”

It’s interesting that so few directors seem to understand Bill Murray as effectively and insightfully as Sofia Coppola. Murray had a very long and successful career before Lost in Translation, including both his biggest commercial hits and arguably the core of his own fanbase. However, very few directors have employed Murray as skillfully as Coppola. Murray’s subsequent pivot towards indie dramedies and collaborations with other directors like Jim Jarmusch arguably demonstrates this. Murray’s never quite replicated that dynamic with Coppola.

Watching on On the Rocks, it is easy to understand why. As a writer and director, Coppola seems to understand her actor’s core strength. Murray is very good at presenting incredibly charming men who turn self-rationalisation into an artform, with a rare gift for sweeping up the audience in these attempts to exculpate themselves. Murray plays characters who are self-centred, egotistical and abrasive, but who are incredibly charming in spite of that.

After a hard day, Felix is just bushed.

Felix is one of those characters. Felix is a deadbeat father who left his family, and has a self-serving piece of gender theory that he can casually drop into conversation to excuse that between cocktails. Watching Murray in action, it’s easy to understand the push and pull that exists between Laura and her father, the unresolved trauma from the fact that he essentially walked away from her for his own pleasure and the desire to forgive him that in the hopes of forging a meaningful connection with a man who – in the moment at least – genuinely appears to mean well.

It’s a paradox that anchors the film, and a compelling one. Coppola is shrewd enough to understand that she can trust Murray to anchor one half of the equation, to turn Felix’s fast-talking justifications into a charm offensive with just enough edge to them. That frees up Coppola to pull back from Felix and let the movie breath around him, to spend time with Laura and explore the contrast between how Felix presents himself and the people caught in his gravity.

Kissing it better.

It’s a very delicate balance, and one that only really works because Coppola understands Murray as a performer. The audience understands that watching Felix shameless flirt with women young enough to be his daughter is sad and pathetic, but Murray makes it all look so effortless that it’s possible to forget that in the moment. The film pushes back just enough on Felix’s nonsense, without shattering it. “I travelled,” he tells Laura. “I never missed a birthday.” Laura replies, “Riiiiiight. But you had some other shortcomings.” There’s a beat. Felix responds, “… like what?”

There are times when On the Rocks threatens to tip over into too much – such as a recurring bit where Felix complains that he “can hear everything fine, but women’s voices.” (“It’s the pitch,” he assures Laura, as if to insist to her that it’s not anything particularly symbolic or metaphorical.) However, most of the time, On the Rocks manages to finely balance the line between its goofy father-daughter adventure comedy and the fraught family drama bubbling away beneath the surface.

Parking their issues.

It helps that On the Rocks is genuinely funny. Coppola’s script is full of low-key absurdism that relies on Murray to play surreal situations with wry charm, such as a delightfully cordial sequence in which the pair get pulled over by New York City police for running a red light. On the Rocks never breezes into full-blown comedy, but it is consistently witty and sharp. It helps that Bill Murray and Rashida Jones share an engaging chemistry, which keeps the film light and nimble on its feet.

This lightness allows the movie to land some of its more earnest dramatic beats without feeling too melodramatic or heavy-handed. The subject matter in On the Rocks is fairly heavy, and could easily power a dozen more achingly sincere dramatic studies of dysfunctional family dynamics. Instead, there’s an engaging tenderness and compassion to On the Rocks, a warmth and empathy that courses through the film. Coppola retains a great deal of affection for all of her characters, even while acknowledging the ways in which they can and have hurt others.

It’s a very whistleful movie.

There’s an appealing maturity to On the Rocks, which makes it a fitting companion to its obvious point of comparison, Lost in Translation. Of course, Lost in Translation hasn’t aged in the most graceful of ways, but it offered a snapshot of youth. That perspective was what made it so compelling and engaging. In contrast, Laura finds herself on the cusp of her fortieth birthday in On the Rocks, and the film’s outlook is more carefully aligned with that. Felix might not be any older or wiser than he was as a young man, but On the Rocks feels like the work of an artist who has grown.

On the Rocks is a sweet and tender dramedy, with just enough sincerity and bite to add layers beneath its charming exterior.

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