Having only now seen half of Sofia Coppola's movies I still don't know where I sit with the filmmaker. That said, the four features I have seen likely sum up why Coppola's career has felt mostly hit or miss as Lost in Translation was lost on me when I first experienced it at fifteen, The Bling Ring was one of the biggest disappointments for me a decade later in 2013, while The Beguiled may very well be my favorite film of hers as I haven't seen Marie Antoinette, but appreciated the step back from the more relaxed yet reflective nature that seems to encompasses the majority of her work. While I also haven't seen The Virigin Suicides, the director's breakout 1999 adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, it would seem that her latest, On the Rocks certainly positions itself more in the category of the Lost in Translations, Somewheres, and Bling Rings than it does her more ambitious work. That isn't to say these films don't have as much ambition from an emotional standpoint, but more that it seems all of the effort put in is emotional leaving very little room for Coppola - who also writes or adapts works for her own direction - to pour efforts and vision into the other, equally important departments. As this seems to be the case with On the Rocks, there is plenty to appreciate from the perspective of varying perspectives as well as themes and ideas that deal with societal double standards, father/daughter relationships where the daughter is the sole exception for how women deserve to be treated, as well as the sanctity of marriage past the formalities and legalities and beyond to the day to day where the love is sustained or quickly killed, but outside of the plot that pushes these thoughts to the forefront Coppola's latest doesn't really offer much by way of what are charming or funny ways of conveying as much. The saving grace of Coppola's eighth feature is her relationship with Bill Murray and what the actor is able to bring to a role that might otherwise be seen as a writing exercise for Coppola to work out her frustrations with men and the sense of entitlement too many seem to possess. Murray's performance makes the issues with the film feel senseless though, and instead welcomes the viewer in with such affection we feel lucky just to be able to witness Murray at his most "him". Whether the title be in reference to a drink or a relationship, Coppola's latest - while likely the undiluted film she wanted to make - unfortunately experiences some difficulties along with way.

Laura (Rashida Jones) and her father, Felix (Bill Murray), embark on some late night New York City-sleuthing in Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks.
© 2020 - A24, Apple+

What's worse is one could probably predict how they were going to feel about On the Rocks before seeing a frame of the film if they have any frame of reference to Coppola's work at all. "Oh, it stars Bill Murray in a reunion with his Lost in Translation director along with a younger, female co-star who he likely has strong chemistry with as they gallivant around New York and Mexico spouting absurd dialogue? Yeah, I can get down with that." It's not a hard sell, like...at all. The disappointing part is that with or without these expectations the film does nothing to either rise above them or deliver anything more than what it feels is required of such. I know people praise the quiet honesty and deep understanding of loneliness that Lost in Translation portrays even if I personally never understood what exactly "hit" in that movie, but there is nothing that even presumes to be as deep or impactful this time around. And maybe that's not the goal as, in all fairness, Coppola would have been equally criticized if not more so for trying to re-create the magic she made with Murray in 2003 while altering the core dynamic. Instead, On the Rocks admittedly goes for a lighter, more playful tone that turns the possibility of a failing marriage into an opportunity for an otherwise absentee father to reconnect with his daughter and not only go on an "adventure" with her, but a meaningful one at that. It's difficult to know sometimes whether or not we're supposed to be more entertained by the caper elements of the film or if what Coppola is doing is trying to entrance us with these more recognizable tropes in order to pull us into something more complex and layered as her past films would indicate to be the case, but On the Rocks never goes there. Rather, the film remains steadily in the lane of knowing it's a movie despite trying its damnedest to be as authentic in its emotional excavation as possible. Coppola naturally weaves in some of her trademark subject matter dealing in our protagonist not knowing how to separate who she is as an individual from who she's become as a wife, mother, and the otherwise face of this family she's always dreamed of, but isn't completely sure how to balance and yet the tone implies these matters aren't nearly as existential as some of the dialogue does. It's not that On the Rocks is less of an achievement because of this, but more it feels like a mixed bag due to the fact that is what Coppola is chasing, but can't quite strike the balance desired.

The protagonist in question and aforementioned "younger, female co-star" is Laura (Rashida Jones) who we initially meet on her wedding night to Dean (Marlon Wayans) both so full of giddy hope and butterflies one can't help but assume the happiness will flow forever. Coppola then naturally cuts to what is probably no less than a decade later where Dean is returning home from one of his seemingly endless work trips late and half asleep. He fumbles into the bed and kisses his wife, but stops in the middle of it as if not realizing where he's at or who it is he's kissing. It could be nothing or it could be indicative of the growing distance Laura is feeling between she and Dean that allows this look to fester. This feeling of insecurity and disconnect is only emphasized the next morning when Laura finds another woman's toiletry bag in Dean's suitcase. It's at this point that it's important to understand some of the larger context at play: Dean seems to have recently stepped out on his own and started some type of marketing firm and is working as hard as he can to have it not only take off and be successful, but he's being diligent so as to maintain that success. At this stage of the business this unfortunately includes a number of networking events and out-of-town trips, but Wayans plays the role in such a subdued and sensible manner that, as a viewer, you're hoping he doesn't turn out to be the guy most guys would turn out to be. Laura, on the other hand, is somewhat on the opposite career trajectory at the moment despite being a writer with a book deal and a publisher anxiously awaiting her next pages. The couple have two daughters together and Laura, in the wake of Dean's booming start-up, has found her time being more assigned to the role of "mom" than she has "author" to the point she's become completely entrenched in the drama of a fellow mom at her daughter's school (Jenny Slate in a fun supporting role that may as well be labeled a cameo). This lack of balance is negatively effecting the way she feels about herself though, and making her feel like she's not interesting enough for her husband to remain interested in her. To take a step back and reassess would be to come to the conclusion that Laura probably has nothing to worry about and this could have likely been resolved if she'd simply confronted Dean about how she felt from the beginning, but that would of course mean there'd be no movie. Enter Murray as Laura's father, Felix, a wealthy art dealer who never settled down after his infidelity with Laura's mother who continues to travel the world, exploiting his privilege at any opportunity. When Felix gets even a hint of the suspicion Laura is feeling he runs with it and off we are on said caper - stalking Dean to see if he's as Felix suspects all men to be or if he's the man Laura truly believed she married.

Laura and Dean (Marlon Wayans) share a peaceful dinner after experiencing a couple of crazy months in the life of their marriage.
© 2020 - A24, Apple+

It's difficult to be critical of a film like On the Rocks when its intentions are that of being nothing more than a light, not necessarily frothy, but certainly effervescent shot of caffeine by a filmmaker who seems to be figuring out how to mature as a writer and director through the process of making the movie in question. Coppola is maybe nowhere near as alternative as she was seventeen years ago and certainly not as introspective as she was at thirty-two when compared to now as she nears fifty. Time has naturally forced her to come to the horrible, unavoidable realization that there are no answers in the search for life's meaning and though the tone of her latest would suggest Coppola has stopped taking things so seriously and given up that quest for meaning she can't help but to at least seek some purpose. Sure, Murray's Felix comes off as the life of the party - and Murray truly is the star of the show here, a single scene of him singing to a half-empty bar in Mexico is enough to justify this stance - but Felix is also the kind of guy who doesn't realize the problems him being able to talk himself out of a ticket with the cops after admitting to having alcohol in the vehicle presents, he's the kind of dad who doesn't realize that he's doing more harm than good by encouraging negative thoughts in his daughter about facets of her life that he failed at, and he's the kind of grandpa that assumes the position of hip/cool grandparent without having earned that title through years of work as a parent first. Felix is charming as hell, there's no doubt about that, and Murray is having a blast playing to his strengths as he drops one hilarious line after another as straight-faced as ever. There's even a chance Murray isn't aware what all of his characterizations are illustrating in the larger scheme of Coppola's screenplay, but odds are he's as good as he is here in regards to his new presence in Laura's life because Felix realizes everything he's been selling and convincing himself of for years is in fact tinged with more than an iota of bullshit; bullshit he can no longer try to make himself feel better about by convincing others of the same. As for Jones, she has always exuded such an effortlessly cool demeanor that it sometimes makes it hard to believe someone with such a factor could ever feel as if they're lacking what it takes to impress someone when they already do so by simply being themselves. Given Jones is largely playing a version of herself here it then consequently makes the stakes around both central bonds at play and in question feel less severe. Still, while On the Rocks isn't a seminal piece of art it's the kind of brief study in human behavior that is just insightful enough to encourage discussion, just simple enough to be overlooked, and just cool enough to make you to throw on some Chet Baker in the background.

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