There is something in Sofia Coppola's latest film On the Rocks that I couldn't initially identify.
It was there, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
I felt it with Bill Murray, as well. Murray has long ago mastered, most successfully in Coppola's own Lost in Translation, the emotionally muted and emotionally distant lonester who means well but seldom does well.
This is different.
The entire film is different, really.
If I had to put a word to it, and I suppose I do since I'm actually writing this review, I'd call it love but it's not the Hollywood bastardized version of love we so often see but the kind of dysfunctional and perhaps ill-fated love into which so many of us lean time and time and time again.
Bill Murray has, of course, played good men on-screen. I'm just not sure I've ever seen him play a man like his Felix here, a man who loves in whatever way he's able with a complexity grounded upon years of false bravado and playing the role he thinks you're supposed to play if you're a man.
It's simultaneously endearing and, well, kind of pathetic.
Yet, I can't stop thinking about it.
In the film's opening moments, we hear but do not see Murray professing that his daughter will always be his one true love until she's married. Then, after she's married.
That daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones), grows up and marries Dean (Marlon Wayans). They have what seems like the picture-perfect life. It's the kind of life so often portrayed in Coppola's films, a life of unquestioned privilege yet it's not a privilege that can mask that relationships are hard and marriage takes work and parenting can and often does feel hopeless.
Laura struggles, but she feels guilty for struggling when she stands alongside the mask of a friend she has in Vanessa (Jenny Slate), a comically disenfranchised fellow mom whose entire being radiates actual struggle. Laura is a successful yet struggling writer, a severe case of writer's block merely one symptom in a life where she's come to see her only value as to her children. She's playing those old tapes on repeat and those old tapes are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of marital stressors, both real and imagined, and such an overwhelming melancholia that one expects to find her in a von Trier film.
Of course, this isn't a von Trier film.
Coppola's Somewhere lived into the somewhat comic melancholia that is present here, though it's remarkably different here. It feels more lived into and immersive. Coppola's substance matches her style here, though admittedly it's a privileged substance set amidst a world for which most of us have little or no reference. You probably have some idea already of what unfolds here, though watching it all unfold is still never less than engaging.
What you may not expect, perhaps, is that On the Rocks isn't Felix's story.
The truth is that Jones and Murray are sublime together, their second uniting after A Very Murray Christmas reaping infinite rewards from a believable father/daughter chemistry that is both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly heartfelt. Murray serves up what may very well be his most satisfying performance to date, at least the equivalent of his Academy Award-nominated turn in Lost in Translation and, at least for me, surpassing it with layers of complexity and emotional depth we've never seen from him before.
But, this is actually Laura's story.
Laura begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick), whose entire being seems to project the sort of razzle and dazzle that Laura once had before, well, everything. Dean, of course, doesn't help matters not necessarily because he is having an affair but because he's so stereotypically distracted that it's completely understandable that Laura believes he is.
Maybe he is. Maybe he's not.
The point is not the affair or any idea of the affair. The point is Laura, whose decision to tell her father about her concerns leads him to assume the worst because, well, he's lived his life being the worst.
But, also being the best.
Before long, Felix is acting out on his own suspicions in dramatic ways. That's the weird thing, ya know? We do weird things when we love people, partly because we love them and partly because we bring our own baggage into every relationship we enter. Murray, quite masterfully, portrays this double-edged sword to perfection as there's nary a single moment in the film when we don't fully buy into the fact that this serial flirt and relentless schmoozer really, really does love Laura with every fiber of his being.
Both things are true.
It's weird and messy and uncomfortable even in Coppola's upper-crust New York City world.
The beauty of On the Rocks is that the more outlandish the behavior gets, the more it becomes obvious that love and dysfunction are irrevocably intertwined in ways both meaningful and maniacal.
I laughed. I cried. I recognized.
There's an introspective nature to Murray's performance here that's simply tremendous, a vulnerability he's never served up before that adds volumes to the other side of Bill Murray that is still here and that we have seen before. Seldom having played a father before, Murray seems to immerse himself in it in profound ways and the relationship between he and Laura becomes all the richer.
Yet again, we can't forget that this is still Laura's film. When the film starts, she is, I believe it's fair to say, DADDY'S Girl, but as she grows into herself and her own identity it becomes possible, perhaps, that she loves her father just as much but, maybe just maybe, begins the path toward becoming her own person.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Jones, whose real life father Quincy Jones probably allows her to have insights into having a larger-than-life father, is similar extraordinary here but in quieter ways. Jones's comic timing is impeccable, but so is Jones's ability to lean into the necessary silences and the physicalization of a woman who wears on her body every message she's ever been taught intentionally or not. Jones actually does lead here, Murray follows, and together they're exquisitely inspired.
Philippe Le Sourd's lensing is absolutely inspired and practically a love letter to New York City itself. It's a strange world, a pre-Covid world that feels almost fairytale like and yet also feels decidedly non-magical and diverse as New York City ought to be. While this is an upper-crust world in which Laura lives, it's a New York City privilege that feels more honest than we usually see in this type of film.
Jenny Slate is an absolute gem here, her sporadic comic interludes strangely natural and simultaneously weird. While Marlon Wayans isn't given a whole heck of a lot to do, On the Rocks still reminds us of his talent after way too many spoof films made us forget.
On the Rocks is most likely to be regarded as a lesser Coppola film, a just over 90-minute experience that could have actually used another 10-15 minutes to flesh some things out and give us an ending that lives up to the rest of the film. Yet, even if this is true, a lesser Coppola is still vastly superior to a good majority of other films.
Personally? This may be my favorite Coppola to date. It's funny and sweet, mundane and meaningful, entertaining and, when needed, willing to simply be present. It, perhaps much like love itself, is devoid of the usual sparkle and shine we've come to expect from Coppola and Hollywood and is, instead, content to simply tell a story and tell it exceedingly well.
On the Rocks arrives on Apple+ on October 2nd. If you're a fan of Coppola, you'll appreciate On the Rocks. If you're a fan of Rashida Jones (and you should be), then you'll most assuredly love On the Rocks. If you're a fan of Bill Murray (isn't everyone?), then On the Rocks is practically a must-see.
ON THE ROCKS, An Apple Original Films and A24 Release, is now playing in select theaters. Available on Apple TV+ Friday, October 23
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic