“Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” — William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”
Film critic Roger Ebert once said, “All good art is about something deeper than it admits.” On the surface, Sofia Coppola’s (“The Beguiled”) On the Rocks is a light comedy about a playboy father and anxiety-ridden daughter snooping on a husband suspected of cheating. The title could refer to Scotch (or Bourbon) on the rocks, a ship foundering off a seacoast, or the downward trajectory of a relationship. In this case, it may be all three. With Bill Murray (“Rock the Kasbah”) as the sleuthing dad, Rashida Jones (“Tag”) as the suspecting wife, and Marlon Wayans (“The Heat”) as the would-be philanderer, on first glance, the film seems to be headed towards sitcom territory, another Woody Allen-Lite tale of over-indulged and well-connected New Yorkers (with a person of color thrown in to avoid stereotyping).
A witty and affecting script by Coppola and busloads of chemistry between the two main protagonists, however, reveals depths that transcend such superficial judgments. Describing the film, Coppola says, “It’s the clash between the two generations . . . how they look at relationships, and also how your relationship with your parents affects your relationships in your life.” Speaking of her famous father, Francis Ford, Coppola says, “It’s not my dad’s personality. It’s not my dad. But of course, you draw on things from life to try to make it feel real and connected.” Laura (Jones) has, in her own mind anyway, some reason to believe that her husband Dean (Wayans) is looking elsewhere to fulfill his physical and emotional needs.
A writer who has been unable to put anything meaningful on paper while she juggles her two young children’s day in school, preschool, and ballet classes, Laura feels lonely and estranged from her oft-traveling husband. Her suspicions are enhanced by Dean’s attention to his “working” relationship with co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick, “Love and Monsters”) and bells go off when she finds a bottle of expensive body lotion in his suitcase. Laura is so preoccupied that she has tuned out others looking for support, particularly her friend Vanessa (Jenny Slate, “The Sunlit Night”), a single mom who is seeking advice about finding a boy friend in the New York scene. As they line up every day to drop off and pick up their children from Kindergarten, her attempts to engage Laura in conversation are met only with blank stares.
It seems a bit out of character when Laura calls upon her wealthy art-dealer dad Felix (Murray) to give her advice as to how to handle the Dean situation. This especially raises eyebrows since the very same father is an obsessive womanizer who left her and her mother for another woman when she was a child. Knowing Murray as we do, however, we fall prey to his sly wit and the film rises and falls on the basis of his considerable strengths. Coppola says, “He has so much heart and he’s so funny and in a way that is so unique to him,” yet it is Rashida Jones who, insecure and vulnerable, provides the human touch, mirroring the truth of their relationship and her engagement in a confrontation with Felix, though low-key is nonetheless powerful.
Felix assumes, since he wants a relationship with almost every woman he meets, that every man is the same and Dean must be guilty, without concrete evidence of course, only suspicions. Felix becomes an updated version of “Columbo” as he stakes out Dean’s comings and goings in New York, aided by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (“La Traviata”). He eats caviar along the way as a quick lunch, hides in alleyways, takes in the scenic delights of the city in his convertible sports car that has seen better days and, in spite of Laura’s reluctance, the two end up in Manzanillo, Mexico in a scene that could have fit into any screwball comedy of the 1930s or 40s. Inclusion of pop songs of the era such as “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Mexicali Rose” adds to the connection. Equally hilarious is Felix’s confrontation with two police officers who pull him over for speeding, but who end up succumbing to his master class in charm and giving his car a push.
Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola’s last collaboration, “Lost in Translation,” was about a connection in a foreign country that hinted at romance, but while Bill Murray’s trademark dry humor was present and his character was jaded enough, neither character experienced anything deeper about themselves or the world around them. In On the Rocks, however, each person has the opportunity and the inner strength to look deeper and develop a new sense of understanding and trust. Here, Laura re-evaluates her priorities in life and her relationship with her father, taking responsibility for what works and what does not. As she looks inward, she heeds the words of poet Charles Bukowski to “Drink from the well of your self and begin again” or, as Chilean author Pablo Neruda put it, “To have lived through one solitude to arrive at another, to feel oneself many things and recover wholeness.”