Sofia Coppola is no stranger to ennui. From the death-obsessed ’70s teens of her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, to the disaffected heroines of Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere, the filmmaker has long fixated on emotionally and physically isolated characters looking for a sense of purpose. Coppola should be the perfect storyteller for 2020, a year when monotony has ruled so many people’s lives. And boredom certainly plays a role in her new movie, On the Rocks, which is available to stream on Apple TV+ this week. But the film is a surprisingly fizzy bit of escapism, one that unfolds in a nearly forgotten, dreamlike environment of yesteryear: the crowded bars and restaurants of Manhattan.
I’m sure when Coppola sat down to script On the Rocks, she didn’t think its setting would feel fanciful to viewers. Sadly, it’s now delightful to simply watch a movie staged at cramped tables and plush booths without a hint of pandemic-related stress in the air. On the Rocks is a 96-minute-long two-hander about Laura (played by Rashida Jones), a weary mom traipsing around New York with her debonair dad, Felix (Bill Murray), and agonizing over whether her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is cheating on her. This film is the slightest story Coppola has ever produced; it only brushes up against deeper insights during its brief running time. But the movie offers such a rush of unintentional catharsis and pure diversion that its flaws are easy to forgive.
On the Rocks is Coppola’s first proper cinematic collaboration with Murray since Lost in Translation (though she did make an hour-long Christmas special with him in 2015). While Lost in Translation tapped into Murray’s soulful darker side, having him play an actor mired in romantic melancholy, here he’s more of the classic rascal that defined him as a movie star in the ’80s. Felix is an art dealer of seemingly limitless means who practically has the keys to the city, waltzing up to good tables at every fancy restaurant and parking on the streets of SoHo with ease in a vintage roadster. The one thing Felix abhors is dullness—a fate that seems to have befallen his daughter, who is married and on an extended career break while she raises two young girls.
If On the Rocks is supposed to have some sort of autobiographical message (Coppola does, of course, have a very famous and domineering father), I cannot parse it. Still, the director’s clearly beguiled by the energy of father-daughter relationships, in which stern lectures about responsibility might go in either direction. Felix is unerringly impish, while Laura is perpetually miffed, so her father tries to inject excitement into her life with a night out. But rather than, say, going to the opera, Felix engages his daughter’s attention by encouraging her fears that her workaholic husband might be straying from their marriage.
It takes a scoundrel to know a scoundrel, Felix argues, and he smells trouble in Dean’s habits of working late and palling around with younger colleagues. On the Rocks isn’t powered by that mystery, though; the plot point mostly just gives Laura and Felix an excuse to spend time together, clinking martinis and bickering over the menu at various scenic New York venues. Like almost all of Coppola’s movies, On the Rocks plays out against a backdrop of unattainable wealth, a detail that’s barely acknowledged by the characters (even if Laura has a Bernie 2016 sticker taped to the door of her fancy loft). As in almost all of Coppola’s movies, that wealth is as alluring as it is deadening, lending every scene a fancy sheen but offering no solution to Laura’s existential woes.
The well of sympathy for bored millionaires might be dry at the moment, and you could be forgiven for dismissing On the Rocks as a result. But cinema is, of course, one of pop culture’s purest means of escapism, and I found myself lulled by the combination of snappy dialogue and finely appointed settings. It doesn’t hurt that Hollywood doesn’t make enough movies like this anymore—dramedies focused on just a few characters, in which the stakes are a smidge lower than the end of the world, and the dialogue does more than explain the rules of a complex cinematic universe. As On the Rocks wound its way to a predictable (but satisfying) conclusion, I wanted more—not more of this particular film, maybe, but more movies about grown-ups and their piffling problems, some of which can be solved only over drinks at the classiest gin joints you can find.