Few filmmakers create a sense of ‘place’ as elegantly as Sofia Coppola. From the energetic streets of Tokyo to the brightly lit horizons of Los Angeles, Coppola has mastered the art of capturing loneliness in the busiest of locations.
In her latest effort, the decidedly light relationship-comedy On the Rocks, the Oscar winner grapples with personal turmoil in New York; a vision she dreams of in martini bars, muted tones, jazz, and lively suspicion of an affair that may not be.
Rashida Jones plays Laura, a successful author and mother of two daughters. Her days involve the struggle of putting pen to paper (her manicured apartment being the envy of every home-office), school drop-offs, and promises of coffee catchups with other parents. She perceives herself to be a “buzzkill” — the “old lady,” a husband would refer to when explaining to his colleagues why he couldn’t stay out for another round. Laura’s husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) remains absent from the day-to-day, working intense hours in a demanding job that involves close engagement with his outgoing colleague, Fiona (Jessica Henwick). The presence of the high-spirited Fiona magnifies Laura’s feelings of insecurity, leading herself to self-doubt and suspicion of infidelity.
Making things even more complicated is the return of her lothario father, Felix (Bill Murray). To say their relationship is complicated would be an understatement. Barely five minutes of screentime and Felix has already flirted with two women. His frankness, coupled by Laura’s blank facial responses, generates much of the film’s humour. Suspecting Dean of cheating, the emotionally estranged Laura and Felix plot to catch him in the act; patiently watching him as he navigates after-hours New York. On this mission, Felix and Laura’s find themselves facing their complicated relationship and the pain felt from Felix’s own infidelity.
Coppola is a profound stylist; it’s as though On the Rocks is delivered with the ambience of an iPhone commercial. There is certainly an appealing… cleanliness to her films that reveals the deep complexity of her characters’ anguish and inability to connect. On the Rocks’ central focus is on character, and like many of Coppola’s previous efforts, this takes priority over plot. It is with a minimalist touch where Coppola finds her stride, delivering through close-ups (a credit owed to her photography background) and moments of intimate embrace (no doubt sharing her love of art) something cathartic.
The adoration of women and the expectation that they should fulfil a non-confrontational mould (Jenny Slate, testing the limits of Jones with her endearing vapidness – a comedic highlight) is another theme the Virgin Suicides filmmaker has previously explored. However familiar, it is ground she impressively treads with potent flair. The result is intoxicating dialogue and grounded performances from Jones (a career-best) and Murray (a crooner through-and-through).
Other themes piquing Coppola’s interest include the problematic attitudes held by men of a certain age. The smooth-talking Felix is protective of Laura, and display’s bleak views on human nature and unacceptably outdated attitudes towards women. A retired gallery owner, Felix objectifies women like he would a piece of art. Coppola using his naivety to convey the not-so-passive prevalence of sexism — whether it is intentional or not, being beside the point.
This lavish display of art and fine dining brings forth another trademark of Coppola’s work: revelling in characters who embrace wealth and high-social standing. Despite Jones’ presence in spaces traditionally occupied by white bodies (more exclusionary than exclusive – see the work of Woody Allen), On the Rocks isn’t a film that explicitly calls out race. It is an important, and overdue, acknowledgement of the diversity of a big American city.
Through contemporary lenses, it is easy to scorn light-entertainment for its superficiality – and one could see it being easily misconstrued with Coppola’s brand of introspection resembling her film’s Felix: somewhat old-fashioned. With her latest, Coppola, in my opinion the embodiment of Hollywood royalty, is clearly speaking of experiences that are close to home. On the Rocks is a character-driven discussion on feelings of inadequacy and the need for connection, poured into an inviting glass that only Coppola can serve up.
In Australia, ‘On the Rocks’ began a limited theatrical release on October 2nd. The film is released globally on Apple TV+ on October 23rd.