Sofia Coppola may have downgraded her ambitions with her seventh feature, On the Rocks, but that doesn’t mean she’s come close to selling out. A gentle comedy about the rocky relationship between a father and daughter, On the Rocks feels like a personal story, and there’s a temptation to search for a reflection of Coppola’s relationship with her own famous filmmaker father, Francis Ford Coppola. But the movie’s appeal doesn’t lie in making deep observations, even though Coppola eventually digs into serious themes about dealing with a selfish parent and feeling untethered in middle age. Mostly, On the Rocks is a lively, fun showcase for stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray, who bring a lived-in feel to the connection between author and mother of two Laura (Jones) and her art dealer dad Felix (Murray).
Laura seems to have an ideal life, with a thriving career as a novelist, a beautiful Manhattan apartment, two adorable young daughters and a successful, attentive husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans). But Dean, who runs some sort of ill-defined social media consultancy, has been more successful and less attentive lately, spending most of his time on business trips along with his beautiful younger associate Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Laura gets a nagging feeling that something is wrong, and she makes the mistake of confiding in Felix, an inveterate womanizer who’s cheated on every woman he’s ever been with. Felix is convinced that Dean is cheating, and he draws Laura into his obsession, dragging her along to spy on Dean and prove that her worst fears have come true.
Although Dean’s activities provide the motivation for the plot, he’s mostly a distant presence, and Coppola is far more interested in the dynamic between Laura and Felix. Felix has strong, old-fashioned ideas about the differences between men and women, all defined by his position of extraordinary privilege as a wealthy, charming white man, who can essentially get away with anything. He clearly loves Laura (and his granddaughters, too), but he’s entirely self-absorbed, playing the role of parent only when it suits his whims. But of course he has Murray’s charisma and wit, and Coppola depicts him as a lovable buffoon rather than as a malignant narcissist. Laura has obviously been dealing with his behavior for decades, and she indulges him because he’s her dad, and also because he plays on her genuine insecurities about her marriage.
Murray is predictably delightful as Felix, but Jones gets the more complex role as a woman who is the repository for emotional baggage for nearly everyone in her life, from Felix to the constantly yammering fellow mom (a very funny Jenny Slate) at her kid’s school. Laura is struggling to define herself as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a writer and a person in general, and even though the movie remains swift and light almost all the way through, Jones effectively conveys those conflicting feelings with her weary line readings and exasperated looks. The two stars have fantastic chemistry, and it’s easy to believe them as people who have sparred over these same issues for Laura’s entire life.
Although On the Rocks isn’t nearly as visually inventive as Coppola films like Marie Antoinette or The Bling Ring, it still captures the wide-eyed wonder of New York City, like a mid-period Woody Allen film filtered through a more progressive, female-focused sensibility. Spending 90 minutes with Laura and Felix is a wonderful experience, even if the story doesn’t amount to much and the themes rarely delve below the surface. Coppola has created so many profound, indelible films that it seems ungrateful to complain that she decided to devote one movie to having a laid-back good time.