‘On the Rocks’: Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray Reunite for a Wistful Father-Daughter Journey

Sofia Coppola is having fun with “On the Rocks.” There is nothing too archaic or needlessly dense in this wistful movie. Like Coppola’s best work, it’s about people, pure and simple. In life we experience quiet joys, insecurities, bad memories and great ones too. This is a filmmaker that knows how to focus on the microcosm of it all, at least in the corners of society she knows best. Coppola defines the idea of writing what you know, and there is never a doubt in this small, intimate film that she knows everyone in it to the letter. 

The focus of the story is a New Yorker named Laura (Rashida Jones), who is feeling the pressure of having to deliver a book she sold before writing a single chapter. She’s also a mom and married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), an entrepreneur trying to get a company going. One morning Dean kisses Laura in bed in an odd manner, as if in a haze he was expecting someone else. Is Dean cheating? Laura’s father, Felix (Bill Murray), a wealthy art dealer, is convinced something fishy is going on. Laura doesn’t doubt her dad’s expertise in these matters, considering he’s still the type who flirts with every woman who comes anywhere near his vicinity. Felix nudges Laura into a bit of private detective work, scooping her up in an antique Italian sports car to tail Dean and get to the bottom of things. It’s Felix’s own version of father-daughter bonding. 

“On the Rocks” reunites Coppola with Bill Murray for a film that could almost serve as a small bookend to their 2003 “Lost in Translation” which won Coppola a Best Screenplay Oscar. Again Murray plays an older man who acts as a confidant to a younger woman. But unlike with Scarlett Johansson in the previous movie, this is a parental bond. Felix seems to be using the excuse of Laura’s suspicions about Dean to spend time with her, to wander the streets of Manhattan and drink in past memories. Like Tokyo in “Los in Translation,” New York is a subdued background character in this film. Felix knows where the best restaurants and hangouts are, but he also seems alone in his wealth and enjoys the idea of going on a little mischief with Laura. He also seems oblivious to the way his daughter rolls her eyes when he charms a waitress or bumps into an obvious former lover. Coppola’s tight script, which has the feel of a good short story, is not about cheating, it’s about those moments in life when there’s a bit of drama going on and a friend or relative tags along. Nothing kills loneliness and boredom like the artificial suspense of suddenly suspecting there might be intrigue in your daily routine.

For Coppola this is a welcome return to a terrain she knows with the precision of an anthropologist. She is not a director of limited range. Her last film, “The Beguiled,” was an intense, Gothic experience, although she has yet to return to the opulent Punk grandeur of “Marie Antoinette.” This movie is about themes that truly obsess Coppola: Daughters under the shadow of larger than life dads, privilege masking human frailties and the quirks of the upper class. This is the world she herself grew up in as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, who as the director of movies like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” has left a legacy any offspring would find hard to escape or surpass. There is always a hint of autobiography in a Coppola film, especially in films about young rebels in Hollywood’s plush neighborhoods like “The Bling Ring” and “Somewhere.” When Felix picks up Laura in his car with a serving of caviar and crackers ready, we suspect the director has lived this very moment.

 But “On the Rocks” is also a very mature, quietly lively experience. It isn’t dire, but fun in a very human way. Laura and Dean live in an expensive Manhattan apartment, and her main worry is delivering a book on time, but their marriage could be any relationship where after a few years together, routines get sloppy and a partner might look for problems where there might not be any. There’s an impressive acuteness to all the performances here. Marlon Wayans plays Dean with a homely niceness, but sometimes he looks puzzled or nervous, as if he could actually be hiding something. Rashida Jones and Bill Murray make a great pair, because they finely create two characters who do feel like blood relatives. Laura is frustrated at her dad still being an immature type who gets away with it because he’s rich, but she herself has his traits in subtle ways. 

Films about marriages going through turbulence don’t always need to be soul-crushing rides. “On the Rocks” is about enveloping the viewer in Coppola’s elegant style, in a welcoming environment where we feel as if we have spent an hour and a half with real people. Even when Felix and Laura go to Mexico on their quest to snoop on Dean, the movie avoids becoming a cheap thriller, and turns into an emotional chance for Laura to tell her father some raw truths. It’s not about hurting him, but about how we sometimes really do not listen to those around us. This is a wonderful film about how the biggest dramas in our lives can come from the most common relations and moments.

On the Rocks” releases Oct. 2 in select cities and begins streaming Oct. 23 on Apple TV+.