Sofia Coppola’s career behind the camera began aged 17 with Life Without Zoe, a thin slice of Big Apple whimsy that she co-wrote with her father Francis (who directed it) and that formed part of the 1989 portmanteau film New York Stories along with shorts by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. The Coppolas’ yarn, about a precocious, Chanel-wearing adolescent girl, was widely agreed to be the weakest panel of the triptych. Combine that with the damning reviews she received the following year for her callow performance in The Godfather Part III, which also takes place in New York, and it is easy to see why Coppola has never set one of her own films in that city.
Until now. On the Rocks represents a homecoming to the place where her filmmaking career had its faltering start. It follows the template of her hit Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray again playing a witty sage who dispenses advice and consolation to a younger woman (Scarlett Johansson in the earlier movie, Rashida Jones here) unappreciated by her husband. But the indulgent affection for upper- middle-class Manhattanites, the presence of jazz on the soundtrack, the May-December pseudo-romance (Murray and Jones play father and daughter but keep being mistaken for a couple and even pose briefly as lovers) and the caper-like plot all suggest a Woody Allen bagatelle rather than one of Coppola’s trademark bleary daydreams.
Murray plays Felix, a former art dealer called upon by his daughter Laura (Jones) for help when she suspects that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), father of their two young children, is having an affair. She asks Felix fuzzy questions about differences between the genders (“Can a man ever be satisfied with one woman?”), which he answers with variations on the theme of biological imperative. He’s a partially reformed roué, a hipster Leslie Phillips who refers to his conquests (“the Rockette”, “the Corsican”) as though they are vintage cars.
Casting Murray is like taking out an insurance policy against the audience’s disapproval. Even viewers who didn’t see him in a similar capacity in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, though, may find Felix marginally less charming than the film does. It’s down to the actor’s asides, which have the air of ad-libs even if they’re not, to save the day. (Recommending his chauffeur as a babysitter, Felix says: “He’s got four kids. They’re all still alive.”) Without those, we might be quicker to notice that the character is little more than white male privilege in a polka dot scarf.
Felix seizes on his daughter’s problem, practically rubbing his hands at the thought of all that intrigue. “At some point, we can make a decision about whether to tap his phone,” he says. “Could you act a little less excited by this?” Laura asks. They zip all over town tailing Dean; Felix brings binoculars and caviar. There is also a detour to Manzanillo, where Laura’s canary yellow dress goes nicely with the resort’s vivid cerise walls. Murray gets to do funny bits of business while Jones furrows her brow and the movie kills time waiting for Laura to realise that the problem isn’t Dean at all but her own unresolved daddy issues.
“You’re mine until you get married,” Felix told her as a child. “And then you’re still mine.” But for all his warmth and extravagance, he never quite made the grade as a parent. The sharpest scene shows Laura confronting him about his shortcomings after he complains that he is losing the ability to hear the pitch of the female voice. “You have daughters and granddaughters,” she reminds him as she fights back her tears, “so you’d better start figuring out how to hear them.” More of that, please.
Awkward truths are in short supply. Coppola has made some glorious films but nothing in On the Rocks suggests any curiosity about the relationship between her characters and the world they inhabit. When Felix is stopped by police for running a red light, Laura looks on as he not only sweet-talks the cops but persuades them to jump-start the car. “It must be very nice to be you,” she tells him. Perhaps she is imagining what would have happened if Dean, who is black, had been at the wheel instead. Then again, perhaps not. With Coppola, who omitted an African-American slave character from her Civil War drama The Beguiled for fear of causing audiences discomfort, the odds of butting heads with reality are slim.
Such oversights help to keep the material lightweight and to leave existing social structures unchallenged. Laura is cool – her T-shirt collection runs from Beastie Boys to the Paris Review and she has a “Bernie 2016” sticker in her kitchen – but she is also contradictory, easily won over by some Cartier bling. The temperature of Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is cooler still, at least until the end, when blobs of coloured light on the nocturnal skyline resemble jelly beans held in the palm of a glove. Sweet but with no nutritional value.
“On the Rocks” is in cinemas from 2 October and streaming on Apple TV+ from 23 October
On the Rocks (12A)
dir: Sofia Coppola
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union