Sofia Coppola has made a career of finding the poignant in daily minutia and intricate beauties in the sublime. Hers is an eye that gravitates to pastel colors, touch-starved intimacies, ornate decadence, serpentine lines and quiet heartache. It’s always been about casting a veneer of shallow, stereotypical femininity and weaponizing it to create something starkly in contrast to the arched blush of her protagonists’ prominent cheekbones. Under the lace and the wealthy aloof are stories about deep loneliness and forced isolation, of patriarchal demands and women’s wills to persevere in the face of enormous pressure and, often, their fall from grace when society turns their back on them. Coppola is, without question, one of the defining directors of her generation, a startling talent who has, to date, made a handful of what we’d deem modern masterpieces (re: Marie Antoninette.) It’s what makes her latest, the airless yet flighty On the Rocks so disappointing. Finally, there’s a film by Coppola’s whose narrative vacancy matches the supposed visual shallowness. There’s nothing there – no matter the committed performances and reliable direction.
Rashida Jones plays Laura, a woman suffering from writer’s block with a nagging suspicion that her doting, workaholic husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) isn’t being totally honest with her. This concern is exacerbated by her playboy father Felix (Billy Murray) who believes it must mean that Dean is cheating on her. Soon, after a bit of shoving on Felix’s part, the two are traipsing through New York City to track Dean’s movements, hiring private investigators and making impulsive trips to other countries to find proof. Beneath that and all of the hijinks that the two get themselves into is a story about a father who took his relationship with his daughter for granted in his years of selfishness and a daughter who, now married and with kids of her own, is beginning to see the fallibility of her own parents and the recognizing the need for forgiveness. In theory, it sets itself up for another Somewhere-esqe film by Coppola – a way to bridge the disconnect between parent and child amid greater tensions.
Instead, rather quickly, the driving source of the storylines renders itself rote. With the motive behind Laura and Felix’s actions resulting in only one of two outcomes (he is cheating or he isn’t cheating) and with little engagement in keeping us buried in the mystery, the air is let out of the tires and we’re left wondering what aspect of the story we’re supposed to latch onto.
It’s a shame that Dean is so on the outskirts of the film itself since Wayan’s is a delight here. There’s a question as to whether the film might’ve worked better had its focus been more primarily focused on their marriage as the best moments between Laura and Felix are fleeting – more as scene setters than fully fledged sequences. A conversation on a tropical beach, a whirlwind flight through the streets of New York City and a lazy afternoon on the floor of Laura’s apartment – those are the moments that stick out, that stick the landing and make us long for a film that tied these snapshots more gracefully, with less apathetic filler.
Clearly Coppola’s intent was for the father/daughter dynamic to be the driving heart of the film and, in its best moments where the script, performances and stunning cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd are all in sync, it achieves that goal. Jones and Murray have an off kilter dynamic that fuels the believability of being related, sharing an innate comfortability in one another’s presence that betrays any pent up frustration or hostility on Laura’s end. They’re charming and Murray is having more fun with this character than he’s had in a while while Jones anchors many of the flimsier moments. This all works, but it’s not enough to make the film feel full, rather than a few jumbled together parts of a larger story.
On the Rocks is hardly a bad film and Coppola as always has a keen, engaged eye for what makes for a compelling shot. It is, however, a disappointing one, a story that never culminates as a final project that is lived in with the same level of texture as Coppola’s greatest – or even less than greatest – fare. The warmth is too transient, humor too subdued and beauty too staged. The film is fleetingly beautiful , but that can only carry the rest of the film so far.
‘On the Rocks’ will be avaialble October 23rd on Apple TV+