On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola partners with Apple in an enjoyable, if socially incongruous film
Apple has been making a heavy investment in producing visual content. This has been most prominent on the television side, with blockbuster series such as The Morning Show (2019-), See (2019-), and the fabulous Ted Lasso (2020-). However, the film production side of the tech company has been more muted. They initially partnered with independent production company A24 to streamline films, but so far the only noteworthy releases have been forced to streaming-only (largely thanks to the pandemic) and they’ve been few and far in between (The Banker (2020), Greyhound (2020)). We now have the first movie from a high-profile filmmaker hit the Apple streaming service: Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (2020).
On the Rocks is the story of the wealthy New York writer Laura (Rashida Jones), who is in a distanced stage of her marriage with workaholic Dean (Marlon Wayans). After some suspicious instances, Laura suspects Dean is having an affair. Laura’s suspicions remain suppressed until she meets up with her eccentric and extravagant father Felix (Bill Murray) who decides to make the investigation an adventure.
Sofia Coppola has always been very adept at crafting emotionally complex situations in her films. She admirably is able to do this without the need of specific dialogue, only using visual tools and effective directing of her performers. This is apparent in On the Rocks, as we are able to discern Laura’s suspicions without the need of a verbal confirmation. Coppola has also been a filmmaker that has never felt a rush with her films, this is something rare in the whirlwind and overstuffed movies of today; thus her pause allows her film and its scenes to breathe. This gives her dialogue and specific scenes more poignance, as viewers are able to keep up in a relaxed rhythm.
On the Rocks is able to shine best when Murray comes on screen. The film really dives into its father-daughter relationship, and Coppola is not afraid of exploring the more unconventional aspects that her characters have. Murray, however, is stellar in the role of Felix, chewing every word of dialogue and commanding his every scene with his careless yet charismatic demeanor. This is certainly the best role Murray has gotten in years, and it is indisputable that his collaboration with Coppola has produced some of his career’s best work (he’s also worked with her on Lost in Translation (2003) and A Very Murray Christmas (2015)). Jones is solid enough in the lead role, she certainly doesn’t disappoint, however, I was left wanting a little more from her. The slow pace set by Coppola, opens up certain scenes and moments that an actor should dive into and juice out, but Jones seems too timid in these moments, playing her role inside safe lines. Wayans was surprising in his dramatic turn and was certainly delightful and intriguing when he was on screen. He is a very secondary character in On the Rocks, however, nevertheless I would like to see more dramatic work from him.
On the Rocks strikes a similar tone to Noah Baumbach’s films, featuring wealthy urbanites and their emotional problems. However, Baumbach has been largely able to toe the line of showing privileged family’s complexities within the larger global context. Coppola seems challenged to find such a balance. The privilege that we see our characters possess seems to be written too matter-of-factly, and some scenes even become cringey. One such was a police stop after Laura and Felix run a red light. Police stops have taken on very different meaning in recent years with the rise in awareness towards police brutality in the United States. In On the Rocks Felix chats up the officer who stopped them and, by knowing his father, gets off with a finger wag. This was an extremely uncomfortable scene to watch, especially considering how different a stop it would be if Dean had been driving. There are other scenes, such as Laura and Felix eating caviar as they stake out Dean’s workplace, or the booking of a flight to Mexico and a subsequent resort on the impulse of following Dean. It is these kinds of insensitive scenes that clash with the current social context that New York and the United States in particular are undergoing. At some points, you think that Coppola is caricaturing this life of privilege, but at other she seems to be taking it for granted, leaving this very important distinction in the air. The lives of the wealthy can absolutely be brought to the screen in a sensitive way. Jane Austen’s work, Nancy Meyers’ movies, and the aforementioned Baumbach all are able to achieve a sensible balance; this in large part thanks to a focus on the characters themselves and an awareness of a larger context.
In the end, On the Rocks is a fairly enjoyable father-daughter film. Murray is the undisputed highlight of the film, and Coppola is able to craft her truly unique and patient tone. However, the story’s context seems to be slightly out of place with current trends, making some scenes that should have been comedic or heartwarming, uncomfortable instead. Overall, however, the film proves to be a satisfying entry into Apple’s nascent filmography.