Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The latest film by writer/director Sofia Coppola is surprising for both its maturity and commerciality. There is so much heart to this bittersweet story that even in its quietest moments, the film manages to resonate deeply.
The story begins with Laura (Rashida Jones) worrying about writing her first book, which she sold even before completing a draft. She spends her days looking after her two adorable children, brushing their hair, rushing to school, and listening to friends complain about their mundane sex lives. Laura’s husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) works long hours, and she does her best to keep him involved in their kids' lives. However, consumed by his growing business, he entrusts her to make decisions without him.
When Dean returns home one night after a work trip, he crawls into bed with Laura and kisses her, only to roll away when she speaks. The next day, Laura struggles to understand why he reacted in the way he did and consults friends and family members who think she is reading into it too deeply. Perhaps it was the Xanax Dean takes when he travels? But when she unpacks his suitcase and finds a toiletry bag with an opened bottle of body oil, she begins to suspect Dean may be having an affair with a coworker.
Who better to consult about her husband’s possible indiscretions than her playboy father Felix (Bill Murray), who arrives back in New York and invites Laura out for lunch. He picks her up in a private car, and they sit side-by-side in the back seat as Felix starts whistling as Laura tries imitating the tune. It's as though she has come back to life. The routine of her family duties and the pressure of writing her book are less immediate. All she has to do is relax in the comfort of her father.
At lunch, she tells Felix about her suspicions, and he decides to have Dean followed. He also encourages Laura to check Dean’s phone for clues as he contemplates other ways to expose him. This sets Laura and Felix on a journey prowling into the New York night, all in the hopes of confronting Laura’s and Felix's uncertainty about her marriage.
This film is a world apart from Coppola’s aimless yet engrossing film Somewhere, which also explored a father-daughter relationship between a semi-absent Hollywood actor and his young daughter who visits him at the Chateau Marmont. Coppola seems to have reconciled with her artistic style and is now more interested in building the central relationships between her characters through conversation and adventure.
Even the first act of this film is more overt in character building and emotion than her previous films because she keeps the story moving forward. Laura confronts Dean about the toiletry bag while on their way home from a work party, but his explanation only leaves her feeling more distant from him. Just a couple of scenes later, in contrast, Laura and Felix whistle together in the back seat of the private car, creating a beautiful distinction between her relationships with these men and highlighting what she needs to learn to sit comfortably with her husband.
The central love story here is between Felix and Laura. There are hints of the history of their relationship, with Felix’s playboy lifestyle destroying their family years ago. But with two adults talking about life and its many diversions, Laura and Felix manage to speak openly and honestly, even if there is no real resolution. As Laura goes through this difficult stage in her marriage, it is her father that brings her comfort and empowerment. Coppola doesn't waste a tender moment and produces one of the most heartwarming scenes of the year with Felix singing wistfully to a room of strangers as Laura watches from nearby, accepting her father's faults and all. It's these moments together that will be remembered, beyond the difficult past that will always be present.
Bill Murray is in his element in this film, generating laughs and gentle moments while relishing in the time he spends with Laura. Look out for a hilarious car chase through New York in an overly conspicuous red convertible, and Felix charming his way out of a traffic violation. It's a familiar but substantial role for Murray and he treads the line between charm and regrets with ease. Rashida Jones, as always, is a calming presence. Her eyes show a need for answers, whether it’s finding a way through her writer’s block or trying to bridge the communication gap with her husband. Her demeanor brightens with Felix and crashes down with insecurities, like when she thinks Dean has ordered her a cake with candles at her birthday dinner. The combination of Bill Murray and Rashida Jones makes this film and its love stories believable and worthy of repeat viewing.
This film made me reflect on the relationship my sister couldn't have with our father, who passed away when we were very young. What would his presence have given her life, and her relationships with men, if he was alive? I felt Laura's need for her father through every moment and how this contentious relationship is her most valuable one. Coppola beautifully depicts this father-daughter bond with realism and urgency, acknowledging that they need each other, but neither ready to admit just how much.
Just like in life, the solutions in this film are never simple. Laura’s need for answers about her marriage doesn't come without consequence, making this complex narrative all the more mature and loving. What she does for her family is not easy, but her love transcends each obstacle. On The Rocks plays into the charms of its leads and extends Coppola’s voice beyond her quieter, stylistic films making this her most appealing and accessible film yet.