On the Rocks

(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2020)


On the Rocks is not a memorable title: it is sure to be casually referred to, in no time flat, as On the Ropes, Off the Rails, and several other close variations. Unmemorable, and fairly pointless: it presumably aims to punningly twin the lush lifestyle of one of its central characters with the feeling of failure haunting the other. Alas, the film itself turns out to be rather unmemorable and pointless, as well as strangely feeble and conservative in its dramatic “argument”.


It does have its pleasurable moments, and every one of them is concentrated in the figure of Felix as performed by Bill Murray. He’s so good, he completely unbalances the movie; subtract him, and you’ve got virtually nothing. Felix is the irascible, flawed, but totally charismatic Dad of Laura (Rashida Jones, fighting with a glum, pale role). She (apparently a writer, although we get little sense of that) suspects that her hardworking husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair with his long-legged assistant. So Felix swoops in, takes over Laura’s life and time, and whips them both into a private-detective adventure … eventually, all the way to Mexico.


It’s a “loving your impossible Daddy” story, centred in the adult daughter’s viewpoint (not much played for male pathos, The Babysitters Club-style, apart from one splendid dramatic soliloquy for Murray). In a way, it’s more than familial love, it’s a full-on romance (not strictly sexual, of course, but intense all the same) … but that is not an undertone which Sofia Coppola seeks to express or explore; she runs away from it as swiftly as possible. Why not go there, even as a subterranean hint? It could have been a much better film if it had – like the forgotten Duets (2000), for instance. We are very far from Claire Denis, who frequently speaks of the father-daughter relation as “close to incest … something unspoken is always there”. Not for Sofia Coppola!


Likewise, all the possibilities of sexual wandering accruing to Dean and – potentially – Laura herself are all swept aside, out of the picture, on the rocks. Instead, the trajectory here is simplistically therapeutic: Laura finally gets, after all these years, to tell off her Dad for his (at times) questionable and irresponsible behaviour, his male ways and silly, old-fashioned “territorial imperative”, mansplaining gender-justifications; while he gets to stand there, take it in, and skulk into hiding until the final scene …


Coppola should really work with other writers more often. For this is not a film that likes, or wants, complications and ambiguities (not even the mild but mellow frisson of Lost in Translation’s central May-December relationship is present); that’s why I call it conservative. As well as a Daddy tale, it’s a “whatever you imagine is happening is far worse than your ordinary, daily lot” cautionary alert – which is fine for a short O. Henry story, but bad for a feature-length movie. It sets up a small narrative trap, a mystery of sorts, and solves it – allowing a quick cut back to clear-cut equilibrium and normality.


Never mind that this routine clean-up of the plot makes not much coherent sense in terms of a bunch of things we’ve seen Dean do: that inaugural moment of bedroom dissociation on his part; his text-message-wiped mobile phone; his zippy exit from Laura with his computer-doings kept fiercely private; and so on. Is he really such a boring, hard-working, good guy? Screw that. And the “open-minded and inclusive” casting of the part? Amounts to nothing except an empty, superficial gesture of wokeness.


Coppola’s films seem to be loosely tracking (with some diversions and deviations) the stages of her own life: childhood, adolescence, early years of bad marriage, and currently family and relationship “maturity” (she’s now in her late 40s). She may, like Richard Linklater in his Before trilogy, be about to hit premature old-age melancholia. And no wonder: I placed that word “maturity” between scare quotes because, if this is maturity, let me out of it!


Cristina Álvarez López has pointed out to me how so much in On the Rocks appears to continue, 30 years on, the story that Coppola scripted for her own Dad’s episode of New York Stories (1989), “Life Without Zoe”, and she’s dead right (we watched it again immediately). The Dad there (well incarnated by Giancarlo Giannini) is charismatic and travels the world; he is endlessly seductive and has cheated on his wife, breaking up the marriage; he’s associated with the sublime beauty of art (music rather than painting); he shares a deep love with his daughter. There’s even a helper-driver named Hector in On the Rocks, like the servant in the earlier film; and a repetition of a key motif in their respective closing scenes: the sudden announcement of “I have two tickets” to an exotic location …


In On the Rocks, it’s Felix who says that line; in New York Stories, it’s Zoe (en route to a European fantasy-reunion of her family almost as artificial as that which closes Bernardo Bertolucci’s sublime La Luna [1979]). This difference, this switch in emphasis, tells us a lot. For Laura, as portrayed, is dullsville, and so is her husband and their marital/family life. There’s no warmth in any of the interactions occurring in this traditionally nuclear unit (the only inventive moments of liveliness are brought in by Felix); it’s as if Coppola cannot quite imagine such daily life richly enough to portray it with any detailed acuity or tenderness.


Stylistically, too, her films have become successively flatter and more banal since the stirring debut of The Virgin Suicides (1999); this one is not as spectacular a misfire as her The Beguiled (2017) remake but, instead, cruises for a near-telemovie mode, with comic bits of business (like a car chase, or a painfully one-note, harping-on friend in the school queue) uncomfortably integrated … It aims to be an “adult” comedy-drama, no longer the disquieting “affectless” social portrait of The Bling Ring (2013); more’s the pity.


And here another, even bigger difference from “Life Without Zoe” resounds: Laura is not filthy rich, and therefore supposedly not as “alienating” to the average viewer as Zoe was criticised for being. She is hence meant to be (horror of horrors) relatable. But who would want to relate to her? She’s a zero, and the “happy ending” she finds is a more desperate emergency-exit than any dreamed up by Douglas Sirk between Brechtian brackets of irony long ago.

© Adrian Martin 26 October 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search