Sofia Coppola’s new film continues her personal exploration of upper class malaise, through the prism of someone who has lived brutally aware of their privilege. She doesn’t condemn her subjects but instead looks for bigger philosophical questions that affect them; be it the self-inflicted nihilism in Virgin Suicides and Bling Ring, or the ennui of Lost in Translation and Marie-Antoinette. Her films are always grounded in the emotional reality of her experience, like she has observed her peers, carefully studied them, and applied her own self to the findings.
Sometimes it makes for some of the most distinctive pieces of cinema in the past two decades. Sometimes there isn’t enough meat on the bones. On the Rocks stands proudly in the middle.
Coppola is now older, married with kids and living in New York’s West Village, and so her subject is going through the same.
Laura (Rashida Jones) is a writer, mother and wife to Dean (Marlon Wayans). Her daily life is split between dropping kids off school, making small talk with other mums and not writing (an all too familiar routine to those who work with words). The extent of her unhappiness heightens the paranoia her husband may be having an affair. It is something most of her acquaintances dismiss, with the exception of her father Felix (Bill Murray), a larger-than-life flirty playboy who sees this as an opportunity to spend more time with his daughter and reiterate his position as the only men in her life she’ll ever need.
The film is a series of quirky scenes where Murray, at his most Bill Murrayest, charms the screen with his infectious personality as he tries to pull Jones through a series of increasingly flimsy plans to follow and spy on her husband. It’s all told through the point of view of a women going through an existential crisis about her place as person, a mother and, more importantly, an artist.
It can be enervating, if the worries of the upper middle class annoys too much, but Coppola knows how to engage and still be on the side of her skeptic audience. In a recurring joke, an acquaintance of Laura (played by Jenny Slate) babbles about the woes of her absurd romantic life to a disinterested Laura. In another, a careless Felix gets out of a police fine through the sheer audacity of his charisma – it’s a great moment that uses the best of Bill Murray, but it also hones the point of privilege that Coppola understands so well. She indulges in it while also shining a light on its unjustness.
After a lavish period piece like The Beguiled, Coppola goes back to a more personal film that feels like it’s helping with something unresolved. Even if it isn’t, a good film is based on truth, and On The Rocks struts confidently like it has lived all these lives before. She treats New York with the same care she treated Tokyo in Lost in Translation, which further helps to enhance the lonely melancholia Laura seems to suffer. The story is stripped from most of the drama, even if it constantly teases a big payoff that never really comes. The reality is everyone around Laura is having a more exciting life, including Felix, and yet she’s the one with the most important lesson learnt, just by being there. That’s privilege for you.