Like Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker who has come in for criticism for the at-times aggressive whiteness of her characters, even if The Beguiled had African-American slaves who were conspicuous by their absence. Now she has made a delightful comedy called On the Rocks which, if it weren’t for the predominance of Black characters, would play like a Woody Allen farce (one of his good ones), with its literate, well-heeled Manhattan sophisticates trading witty banter. It’s playing now at the Grand Berry Theater, and I found it the most purely enjoyable movie of hers that I’ve ever seen.
The daughter of a famous filmmaker, Coppola casts Rashida Jones, the daughter of a famous music producer, as a woman confronting her own issues with her father. Jones plays Laura, a mother of two and author suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is seldom at home because he’s starting up a new international business, and Laura comes to suspect that he’s having an affair with his colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick). She calls up her dad Felix (Bill Murray), a Paris-based art dealer and serial adulterer who believes that men are biologically wired to cheat, for his male point of view on whether Dean is cheating. Her dad does better than advise her — he pops into town to engage his informal global spy network of doormen, waiters, concierges, and security guards to keep tabs on his son-in-law. Soon Laura and her dad are tailing Dean on a night out with clients in her father’s old, backfiring red BMW convertible. “He’ll never see us coming,” Felix says.
Why doesn’t Coppola go for outright laughs more often? She knows how to stage a running gag, as she proves with Laura repeatedly having her ear talked off by another mother (Jenny Slate) at daycare who overshares about her love life. Dean’s business trip to a Mexican resort hotel comes at just the right point to change the look of the film and give the hijinks a different backdrop, though I wish the question of whether Fiona is the other woman had been resolved in a less obvious way. Experienced comedienne that she is, Jones makes a canny foil to Murray, who revels in Felix’s delight at the chance to help his daughter — at one point, Laura asks him, “Can you act just a little less excited about this?”
The match between the attention-starved Laura and Felix, who soaks up attention wherever he goes —she finds him entertaining the crowd at a bar in La Manzanilla by singing “Mexicali Rose” — is good for more than just laughs. It also leads to her finally confronting him about how he treated her mother and talking out the issues in her marriage with Dean, which gives Wayans a chance to do some good acting as Dean learns how his wife has been feeling. (Remember how good Wayans was in a dramatic role in Requiem for a Dream? Why doesn’t he do drama more often?) Murray, too, equals the heights he hit in Coppola’s Lost in Translation, here playing a bon vivant who recognizes the damage he’s left behind but can’t live any other way. These things keep On the Rocks emotionally grounded without taking away from the sheer uncomplicated pleasure of this comedy. That’s worth treasuring at any time, but especially now.
On the Rocks
Starring Rashida Jones and Bill Murray. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Rated R.