Bill Murray has become a kind of celebrity urban legend. He’s been known to crash weddings, join strangers’ karaoke sessions, or spontaneously begin bartending — building up a reputation as a sort of impish fairy man who will suddenly appear to give life-changing advice before flitting off to inject a little magic into the life of the next lost soul. It’s one of those fun Hollywood myths that might ring a little true, and it’s a persona that director Sofia Coppola taps into in her reunion with her Lost in Translation star with On the Rocks, a frothy father-daughter caper in which Murray plays an only slightly exaggerated version of himself.
On the Rocks stars Murray as the larger-than-life dad to Rashida Jones‘ Laura, a married mother-of-two and New York author who is stuck in a writing rut — and is pretty sure that her husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. Enter: her playboy father Felix, whose joie de vivre both irritates and refreshes the burnt out Laura, as they whizz around a New York City of a bygone time.
Is it possible to be so nostalgic for a pre-COVID New York? Shots of the lit-up city skyline and the bustling Manhattan streets in the late hours of the evening made me almost weep with yearning. Perhaps it’s the timing of its release that makes On the Rocks feel so passionately like a love letter to New York City, to a time when you could brood alone in an uptown bar with a cocktail in hand. Laura and Felix spend most of the movie’s runtime wandering these never-empty streets in fine dining outfits, Murray especially looking sharp in a multitude of tailored suits, and it turns the city into a kind of dreamscape that feels neither like the New York of now or even the one of then. It’s a bubble that gently lifts you up, and that might be in danger of popping, but thankfully never does.
Laura lives the kind of ideal New York City life that you see in the movies: she has a sleek, modern Manhattan apartment, albeit one littered with toys, a loving career-driven husband, a downstairs neighbor who will drop everything to babysit her kids when her father suddenly drops in to take her out on the town. But Laura (a wonderfully grounded and relatable Jones) feels something amiss: her husband, whose attention always seems to be somewhere else, has returned from a business trip with a woman’s toiletry bag in his suitcase. After one worried call with her father, Felix immediately jumps on the case, calling on friends to tail her husband and taking Laura out on late-night capers in his obnoxiously noticeable red car. But Murray is oozing so much charisma that it’s impossible not to be charmed by all of his little quirks and his deep and unrelenting love for his daughter.
By far Coppola’s lightest and most easygoing film, On the Rocks isn’t burdened with the crushing weight of ennui that is a typical staple of her movies. It’s the closest that Coppola will get to a hangout movie, with long stretches of Laura and Felix simply chatting about the relationships between men and women. But in its stead, there’s a nagging melancholy, a sense that — as Laura and Felix dash around New York, tailing her husband and his might-be mistress — this little quest they’ve taken on is just as much an escape for them as the film is for us. We learn over the course of the film that Felix’s playboy lifestyle, which Laura rolls her eyes at with a weary chagrin, is the cause of the dissolution of his marriage with Laura’s mother and perhaps the root of her own insecurities with her husband. The little nuggets of skewed wisdom that Felix regularly drops during their spontaneous outings — that it’s evolution that makes men lust after younger women, that female sex cults exist everywhere, that men lose their ability to hear women as they get older — transform into flimsy excuses that he rolls out for his own mistakes.
Both Coppola and Jones probably know something about coming from complicated fathers, and there is a feeling of the personal that slips in when the film transforms from a hangout movie into an intense dressing down of Felix’s whimsical persona. Murray and Jones are tremendous in the confrontation when Laura finally breaks and asks her father, “Why did you cheat?” Felix’s face falls and you finally see the little cracks, the years of regrets catching up on him before the mask is put back in place and deflects yet again: he just wanted to be loved. “It’s exhausting to try to love you enough,” Laura responds.
On the Rocks isn’t Coppola’s most momentous film — it’s a little too frothy, all crackle and no pop — but its near lackadaisical tone and a delightful Murray performance make it an entertaining watch. It goes down like a smooth glass of wine, with perhaps a little bit of tartness.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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