There is nothing quite like watching the world through Sofia Coppola’s eyes. Her perceptions about people, her place in the world, how she sees women and men, how she sees class and conflict. Watching her usually introverted protagonists interface with extroverted ones often translates to a world observed by an outsider. Her latest film, On the Rocks, fits into the series of first person narratives like Lost in Translation and Somewhere.
Coppola’s introvert this time is a writer named Laura played with quiet depth and lingering self-doubt by Rashida Jones whose father Felix, played by the incomparable Bill Murray, has decided that the two are to play detective and uncover the affair he’s sure her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is having. This isn’t so much a movie about her marriage as it is a movie about her complicated, impossible relationship with her father.
If Scarlett Johansson was the young wife mostly ignored by her husband and Elle Fanning was the daughter in the background of her more famous father, Rashida Jones is the adult version of these women, now navigating a career, motherhood, and trying to keep her marriage alive. At issue in all three of these movies is the eternal question, “Why am I never enough?” Except that the message in these movies is always the same: you are enough. Beautiful, exceptional, unforgettable women who can’t seem to get that fully and completely quite yet.
So maybe this doesn’t seem to be an urgent, pressing issue in 2020 – but it is a universal one for women all the same. It isn’t that Laura is not fully seen by her husband, it’s that she’s begun to feel like her husband is drifting away. Much of this insecurity is due to her having grown up with a philandering consumer of all things female like her father. How can she trust any man?
But On the Rocks isn’t as serious as all of that. In many ways, it is among the few respites from what promises to be a fairly bleak season overall. There is so much sweetness to it, not just in the lovely face of Rashida Jones, that Coppola keeps in a tight closeup for much of the film, but in her relationship with her daughters, and especially the scenes with father and daughter wandering around New York, drinking martinis, zooming around in a coughing, sputtering bright red MG convertible. Laura loves her father deeply, even if he borderline ruined her life.
I loved every minute of this film, and not only because I had a close relationship with my dearly departed father who was every bit as complicated, if not as successful. We can’t help whom we love. Love should not come with a list of requirements, although surely some people see it that way. Some might watch this film and wonder how Laura can be so forgiving. But if you’ve ever loved someone like that you understand why. Coppola is wise enough to get – and thank god for this – that people aren’t perfect, even those who aim for it. We make dumb mistakes, believe stupid things, and mostly get through life on luck.
Coppola is a master of the frame by now, and can blend music with an observational eye that is one step removed. She captures New York in a way that would easily explain what it is about the city that so captivates people. True, this is the nicer side of New York, not the side that has to worry about crime or struggle with money. It is pure romance. But if you can’t slip into the indulgence of romance at the movies, where else can you find it?
In Lost in Translation Bill Murray showed us a man who was losing any kind of hope for his own future but was just the right person at the right time to give Scarlett Johansson’s character a boost in finding direction in her own life. In On the Rocks, he’s a guy full of observations about humanity from an anthropologist’s perspective – in an attempt to explain to the inexplicable when it comes to human behavior. He isn’t so much absent of hope – he just isn’t really tethered to anything except his daughter Laura, whose stable life he seems to want to disrupt so that it can be the two of them against the world.
It’s interesting that Coppola has chosen Bill Murray to symbolize the catalyst in the marriages of her two protagonists. It’s clear the director and actor have strong chemistry. I’ll always love Bill Murray’s reaction when Coppola won her screenplay award for Lost in Translation:
With On the Rocks, Coppola has made not just one of the best films of 2020, but of her career. It isn’t that this kind of movie is what she’s best suited for – she can and has made various kinds of films – but it’s in this mode when she speaks from her heart that her brilliance comes through most clearly. I think Rashida Jones knows what it is to grow up in the shadow of a great man, as does Coppola who by now has earned the right to make a place of her own.
This is the kind of film that will make you forget for a short hour and a half that there ever was a global pandemic that has killed over 30,000 people in New York City and more than 200,000 nationwide. We don’t want to forget forever, but maybe just for a little while recall when the last thing you had to worry about was how close you were sitting to someone you loved.