On the Rocks is Sofia Coppola’s latest ode to the idle self. As a filmmaker, she frequently luxuriates in the doldrums, the in-between times when daydreams dominate the psyche and the body embraces lethargy. This is the territory of an affluent class of gentlefolk who struggle with neuroses rather than overdue bills. Spending an hour and a half in this particular corner of Coppola’s universe is a benign experience, often dull, and ultimately as meaningless as a photograph left to molder on a busy urban street.
The main conundrum the heroine Laura (Rashida Jones) contends with is a worn out marriage. After having two children together, she wonders if Dean (Marlon Wayans) has lost interest in her and the routines of their shared family life. Coppola introduces them on their wedding day. Easily the most alluring scene in the movie, Dean leads his new bride away from the reception for a moonlit swim. Laura doesn’t hesitate to dive into the water.
When the narrative begins again, Laura’s suffering from writer’s block in a spacious, exquisitely designed New York City flat. She manages her daughters’ mornings and hurries them off to school, play dates, or day care. Dean is mostly absent, either at the office or away on business trips. Their relationship as husband and wife doesn’t register on screen. What’s missing is a sense of their history. Coppola leaves out how they met and fell in love. When the director films them on a rare night out to dinner, Laura and Dean have absolutely no rapport, no shared language, and no private jokes. They leave without having dessert.
Coppola isn’t intent on remaking a low-key version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973). She doesn’t make room for the husband until the tail end of the film. What the director lingers on instead is the tedium that’s built into the foundation of a long-term relationship. Coppola exposes an extended phase when the couple is emotionally stalled but, perhaps, not done for. If Laura was once confident and content, motherhood and marriage have worn away her sense of happiness and her independent self.
Jones is a mild, likable presence who doesn’t take any risks with the character. Laura’s often silent, unable to articulate her inner life. That’s an easy trait to identify with and rendered here without much dynamism. Jones constructs a self-contained, restrained character, but I kept waiting for stray hints of rage or sorrow to emerge. Her Laura is too polite to yell at her children or to accidentally break something. Instead, she’s obsessed with the idea that Dean is having an affair. The only person she will open up to is her father, Felix (Bill Murray). Her devotion to him is her one softhearted flaw.
As Felix, Murray has always shared the same laissez-faire, loosely controlled approach to acting as Dean Martin. In On the Rocks though, his repeat performance as a charming scoundrel has started to sour. Felix is a fairy godfather, an irresponsible manic pixie nightmare of a dad. He’s a wealthy, unattached bachelor who left his family to pursue women, lounging, and art. Felix also hits on every woman in his path. Murray conveys Felix’s stale charisma as if it had once been magical. The problem with this approach is that Coppola doesn’t let any woman he aggressively flirts with recoil or talk back to him. That’s because they’re not responding to Felix, the character — and they are delighted by the actor Bill Murray, by his presence and by his persona. The audience, as those women’s surrogates, has to flinch each time Felix delivers another smarmy line of sexual innuendo. On this subject in particular, Coppola delivers a strange mixed message.
Murray woke up on screen when Tilda Swinton confronted him in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005). In Olive Kitteridge (2014), Frances McDormand comfortably tamed his whimsy. But Jones takes a more respectful and distant stance toward him. She decides that Laura is a dutiful, obedient daughter who refuses to challenge him. Without a scene partner to surprise him, Murray stays deep inside Felix’s reverie-filled life, drifting in and out of his daughter’s ordinary reality. Laura may express all of her conflicted feelings on the page, but we never hear a word she’s written. Without some degree of animated turmoil at its center, On the Rocks melts down to become a flavorless, watery drink.
On the Rocks, an Apple Original Films and A24 Release, is now playing in select theaters. Available on Apple TV+ Friday, October 23.