Pictured: Laura (Rashida Jones) gets a whistling lesson from her art dealer father Felix (Bill Murray) in writer-director Sofia Coppola's 'low-stakes' comedy-drama, 'On The Rocks'. Still courtesy of A24 Films and Apple + TV
In Sofia Coppola’s seventh film, the New York-based comedy-drama, On the Rocks, the writer-director is reteamed with her male muse, Bill Murray. Murray is the father Coppola never had, great with kids in small doses if this film is anything to go by but incapable of marital fidelity. Coppola’s actual father, Francis Coppola, the director of three Godfather movies as well as of Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, has been married to Eleanor for 57 years, so clearly this film is not autobiographical. Coppola apparently put some of her father’s somewhat outrageous opinions into the mouth of art dealer Felix Keane, played with relaxed élan by Murray. You find yourself asking: ‘did he really know a tribe of women in Canada who kidnapped men and placated them by having sex?’ ‘That sounds like your fantasy,’ blocked novelist daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones) tells him.
On the Rocks is what some people call a ‘low stakes’ drama, by which is meant that there’s barely any drama at all. When he returns from a business trip to London, Laura’s husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) kisses Laura in bed and then stops himself from going any further. ‘It was like he was kissing someone else,’ she explains later at lunch with her mother, sister and grandmother, ‘then he realised it was me’. This does not spark any suspicions, but then Laura finds a cosmetics bag in her husband’s suitcase – white with a red pattern, it contains a bottle of body oil. ‘It was Fiona’s,’ Dean explains. He packed it because it did not fit in her carry-on luggage and forgot to return it. Laura meets Fiona (Jessica Henwick) at the A24 party – A24 is the production company that produced On the Rocks as well as a slew of quality independent movies like The Farewell and Uncut Gems. She is attractive and uncomfortable around Laura – not a great sign. Laura ends up talking to two of Dean’s colleagues who refer to Dean as a good boss, then run out of things to say.
As the film opens, during Dean and Laura’s wedding, we hear Chet Baker’s song, ‘I fall in love too easily’, a lover’s lament, set to Dean taking Laura away from her own reception, the pair giddily descending a spiral staircase, then Laura joining Dean in a pool wearing little but underwear and a veil. Several years later, she lives in New York, picking up toys left by her two daughters, Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and Theo (twins Alexandra Mary Reimer and Anna Chanel Reimer). Laura has a sticker on her door, ‘Bernie 2016’ referring to Bernie Sanders’ failed attempt to get the Democratic Party nomination against Donald Trump; we know how that turned out, sadly – it turned out sadly. It marks the film as a period piece. Laura is as stuck as the Democratic Party. She looks at the Italian dust jacket of one of her books and arranges the objects on her desk, all to delay the act of writing. We’ve been there – and sent postcards too. Laura has busy mornings taking her daughters to school – these mostly involve brief conversations with another mom, Vanessa (Jenny Slate) who unburdens. Vanessa is dating a guy whom she texts constantly, knowing that over-texting could drive him away. Still, she does it. The entire story of Vanessa’s relationship with her lover is told during school drop-offs; Jenny Slate models mom utility stretch outfits, ones that can be washed at 40 degrees leaving no trace of vomit.
Pictured: Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) in a scene from the film 'On The Rocks', written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Still courtesy of A24 Films / Apple + TV
Laura makes the mistake of talking to her father about Dean, which brings Felix back to New York. 15 or so minutes into the movie, a car pulls up on the sidewalk, the window rolls down and we get our first glimpse of Felix – Murray at his most impassive. ‘Get in, shorty,’ he tells. Felix has a habit of taking Laura to swanky locations where he knows the doorman and compliments the waitresses for their poise. ‘She’s a ballet dancer, they love compliments,’ he explains as Laura objects to his casual flirtation, not that he does it at all, but rather he does it in front of her. Felix had an art gallery but ‘lost it’; he now does occasional deals, but still maintains a driver, Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci). ‘I have a new assistant,’ he explains. ‘She’s great. She doesn’t talk. She does nothing but listen.’ Felix would rile any feminist and do so with casual aplomb. At one point, he tells Laura that he cannot hear women’s voices. ‘Too high-pitched.’ Laura thinks he is being disingenuous.
Yet Laura consults him because, like it or not, Felix knows how men think. He is naturally suspicious of Dean and knows a doorman in London who can tell him where Dean went whilst on his business trip to London. ‘He booked a table at J Sheekey. A four top [booth that seats four people]. Nice touch.’ ‘He could have met clients,’ reasons Laura. Still, however much Laura doesn’t want to believe her husband is unfaithful or ‘not that into her’, to quote a peculiar phrase, still Dean gives her reasons to doubt him. Like buying her a mixer for her birthday, which he has her unwrap while he watches from his phone – he missed her birthday to take a business trip to Los Angeles. It has twelve functions in one. ‘No red box?’ asks Felix when he enquires about her gift. Felix had him followed and reports that he went into an upmarket jewellery store. If all Laura got was a mixer, then who received that present?
There is an additional ambiguity about Dean: we, the audience, have no idea what he does for a living. He talks about ‘hitting 500k’ – five hundred thousand followers on social media platforms, not an endurance marathon – and also ‘ROI – return on investment’, which is associated with advertising campaigns – the amount spent on paid for advertising to compare with increased profits for the company; it can also mean the amount of additional advertising generated by social media followers who share your content. That his client is A24 Films suggests that he is running a campaign for them, perhaps for a Bill Murray comedy called On the Rocks.
Dean also takes Laura out for a meal but doesn’t surprise her. She watches a waiter take a fizzing birthday cake towards their table – one with a sparkler in it rather than candles – and then disappointedly sees it land on the table of two men sitting near them. (Coppola presents a gay couple without comment.) Dean registers her dismay. ‘I thought you didn’t want one of those things,’ he explains, before trying to catch a waiter’s attention. ‘I don’t,’ Laura insists, still clouded by disappointment.
Laura’s biggest problem is that she doesn’t explain how she is feeling. She asks about securing their youngest child a pre-school place and enquiring about a bigger house but not that she is feeling unloved. Felix steps into the void, incredulous that Laura lost the ability to whistle after she had children. ‘No kid of mine should be unable to whistle,’ he exclaims, encouraged her to join in. He explains to Musto that he named his daughter after the song, ‘Laura’, which he then proceeds to croon. This is a signature Murray move – singing, not naming children after popular tunes, though naming a boy ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’, might be appropriate. A highlight of the first Murray-Coppola collaboration, Lost in Translation, featured the star performing his version of Bryan Ferry’s ‘Avalon’. Coppola gets the musical number out of the way early, then surprises us when Felix performs ‘Mexicali High’ to a group of new acquaintances whilst wearing shorts – he looks a bit like a camp supervisor, similar to the role he played in his first big screen hit, Meatballs.
Pictured: Felix (Bill Murray) enjoys a drink with his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) in Sofia Coppola's film, 'On The Rocks'. Still courtesy of A24 Films / Apple + TV
The big comedy set piece involves Felix and Laura tailing Dean to Soho House in a red sportscar, one that has a dodgy engine. Laura sees Dean enter with Fiona and some clients, then waits while they enjoy caviar. It isn’t beluga, Felix notes, ‘but it is American and is pretty damned good’. Then Dean emerges with Laura and they catch a separate cab. ‘Oh, my pretty long legs can’t fit in a car with you,’ Felix says, imagining what Fiona is saying. They set off in pursuit, weaving precariously through traffic while the car’s engine appears to be exploding. Felix treats this like tremendous fun and we’re with him – sort of. Then they ignore a traffic light and get signalled by the police. ‘We’re going to meet some people, we’re going to make some friends,’ Felix cheerily reassures the anxious Laura. The cops do indeed pull them over and ask Felix to shut off the engine. ‘I don’t want to do that. It won’t start up again.’ Nevertheless, he complies and gets out of the vehicle. To Laura’s surprise, he knows the policeman’s dad and went to the cop’s grandfather’s retirement dinner. By the end of the encounter, in which he is not booked, he gets the policemen to push the car to help him start it. ‘New York’s finest,’ he yells, as the car disappears down the street, a quintessential Bill Murray moment. ‘It must be great being you,’ Laura says caustically. She isn’t just talking about Felix; the comment equally applies to the carefree Murray.
At the heart of the film, Laura challenges Felix over his infidelity. He explains how he fell in love with Laura’s mother – ‘she stepped out of the sea in a one-piece white swimsuit and that was it for me’. He also fell for a young colleague, with whom he did not stay. ‘She died, aged fifty,’ he says ruefully, ‘I never thought I would outlive her.’ Felix’s defence is that he couldn’t help himself. ‘Women: you can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Why do you have to live with them?’ He will also tell Laura about how the model for the perfectly shaped woman appears in men’s minds – Felix is full of anecdotes. There is a delight in his eyes, a willingness to gently outrage. He isn’t aggressive; he is an ‘it is what it is’ type.
Coppola certainly pays homage to Murray the charm magnet, at one point having him pose next to a vase of roses that Felix purchased for Laura as a birthday present. Felix smells the flowers, then smells them again in an exaggerated manner, enjoying his own gift. Felix is the kind of grandpa who would let his two granddaughters watch Breaking Bad and teach them card games and ‘poker face’. Felix chastises Laura for not wanting to go out for dinner with him while Dean is away. ‘Who would like a mom who doesn’t like cake and ice cream?’ ‘Ice cream,’ chant Laura’s two girls. Later Felix orders a ‘belly buster’ for Laura and is relieved to be given two spoons, as if it were a life saver.
Felix certainly reflects on his past, but events in the film don’t change him. By the end, he is offering Laura a trip on the QE II. ‘I’ve booked the Princess Margaret suite. It’s all you can eat. People can eat much more on a ship than you’d think.’ Laura declines. Murray has a twinkle throughout the film and to paraphrase one of the lines from his hit film, Ghostbusters, that’s a big twinkle. Yet Murray shows Felix’s vulnerable side too. Still, we enjoy watching him live life to the hilt, retreating backwards out of a room with Laura to sneak a look at a Cy Twombly painting. He sighs in front of it and recalls how he first saw it at the Tuileries. We sigh too. It is great to see Murray exercise his range, to show what he can do when not underused by the directors who call upon his services. His good humour, if not Felix’s Palaeolithic attitudes, elevate us. And Laura learns to whistle.
Reviewed at Curzon Canterbury, Screen One, Friday 2 October 2020 (17:45 screening) and Arthouse Crouch End, North London, Monday 5 October 2020 (18:15 screening)