Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks is a love letter to many things. First and foremost, it’s a love letter to her lead actor, Bill Murray, who starred in her debut hit, Lost in Translation, and whom she clearly adores. In Lost in Translation, Murray played a man thick with regret and longing, a bit of a sad clown, an aging movie star reflecting on his life and not always happy with what he saw. Here, as Felix, he’s closer to himself—a rascal and raconteur and flirt, although there is still a soupcon of ennui around the edges. It’s a plum part, the kind of part any older actor would love to play. And it almost seems as though she has bestowed it upon her old friend as a gift. He, in turn, gifts her with another wonderful performance.
The film is also a love letter to that kind of man, the kind they don’t make any longer—mostly with good reason. Felix, an art dealer, gets chauffeured around in limousines (or when he’s really feeling feisty, he drives a cherry red vintage Alfa Romeo), he flirts with waitresses and charms everyone else, he passably speaks several languages, he drinks martinis at lunch, he knows the maître-d’ at every dimly-lit private club in New York. He’s a man who lives the good life. But he’s also a man who cheated on his wife, left his family in tatters, always in pursuit of the next woman who would make him feel irresistible. He has two adult daughters, one who apparently doesn’t speak to him. He, too, has regrets.
Lastly, it’s a love letter to New York. Both the cobblestoned Soho neighborhood where our hero, Laura (Rashida Jones) lives with her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), and their two adorable daughters, and Felix’s New York—the New York of places like The Knickerbocker and 21, where a man like Felix can boast that the Plaza is the best place to take your mistress because it has the most exits. Coppola romanticizes both Felix and this last gasp of 20th century New York—and recognizes that its time has passed.
The story is slight. Laura suspects that Dean, who has a new start-up business (a website of some sort; the film is vague) is cheating on her. It starts one night when Dean, returning from a business trip, zonked out on Xanax, climbs into bed and begins to kiss her quite passionately. “Hi,” she says, surprised. He jolts away, as though he thought she was someone else. Later, she finds a woman’s toiletry bag in his suitcase. He has a valid explanation—his (suspiciously gorgeous) co-worker Fiona couldn’t carry liquids on the plane, so he stashed it in his luggage for her. But still, with all his travel and a certain inertia that has set into their marriage, she worries.
She makes the mistake of confiding in her father, and he’s immediately convinced that Dean is cheating on her.
“He’s a man,” Felix says. “It’s his nature.”
Felix proposes that they spy on Dean, and Laura, at her wit’s end, reluctantly agrees. Somehow, spying on Dean involves lots of time in Felix’s limo and the aforementioned Alfa Romeo (he brings a tub of caviar for their “stakeout”), plus martinis at private clubs, a trip to Mexico, and luxe parties where Felix is stalking a particular piece of art (or woman) he has his eye on.
What becomes clear to us, and eventually Laura as well, is that Felix may indeed believe that Dean is cheating, but he is really just relishing the time spent with his adult daughter. There’s an absolutely beautiful piece of writing by Coppola where Felix describes to Laura the first time he recognized her as a real person. She was nine months old. I want to share the anecdote, but I’ll let it play out for you in the film. Suffice it to say, father and daughter share a sly sense of humor and mischief. Despite it all, they get each other.
I can quibble with a few things about the film: Despite the fact that Laura is a struggling writer and Dean has that start-up company, they are obscenely rich, living in a loft-like space with soaring ceilings, sun-drenched exposure, and wall-length windows (I guess it’s supposed to be her dad’s money?). Also, and this is my biggest issue with the film: I never really believed in Dean and Laura’s marriage. It’s a tricky thing—the whole film is based on the rift between them, the puzzle of whether or not he’s cheating on her. But still, something about their rhythms together felt too forced and stiff, even for an emotionally estranged couple. (Wayans does convincingly play a great roll-on-the-floor with silliness dad, though.)
Still, these are minor concerns. On the Rocks is a delight from beginning to end. Gorgeously acted, deeply felt, but remarkably light on its feet. Consider this review my love letter to Sofia Coppola.
On the Rocks will be playing in theaters, including the Senator Theatre, on October 9th and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting October 23.