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Love and marriage, fathers and daughters – ‘On the Rocks’

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The relationships between parents and children have long been fertile fodder for filmmaking. These are easily recognizable dynamics in the macro sense that can nevertheless run the gamut in terms of specifics. That combination of universality and flexibility allows a lot of room for interesting storytelling.

Perhaps its no surprise that writer-director Sofia Coppola would make a movie that explores that dynamic – specifically, that which exists between fathers and daughters. One imagines that her relationship with her own father – the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola – might be fraught, particularly when you consider that she made her way into the family business.

“On the Rocks” is her latest film, currently available on Apple TV+. It’s a story of one woman’s attempts to take a closer look at her life and her relationship, exploring her own feelings of stagnation while also trying to figure out where her husband stands. Her enthusiastic and somewhat misguided ally for these efforts is her wealthy, wayward father, a man who has his own very particular ideas about marriage and relationships.

This is a movie that takes great pleasure in deconstructing the upwardly-mobile marriage at its center, digging into the feelings that can spring up when parenthood and other factors are clamoring for your attention. It also does a great job in shifting and sharing different perspectives regarding what it means to have a successful relationship – or if such a thing is even really possible. And with a dynamite pairing of talents driving the action, the end result is a film packed with heart and humor.

Laura (Rashida Jones, “Spies in Disguise”) lives in New York with her family. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans, “Sextuplets”) is an entrepreneur trying to jumpstart a brand-new company, leaving her to shoulder the load as far as their two kids – a grade-schooler and a toddler – are concerned. Laura is a writer, but she’s struggling to make progress; her creative energies are sapped somewhat by her other obligations and responsibilities.

One night, when Dean arrives home late from a business trip, his odd behavior makes her start asking questions. She has suspicions about Dean’s relationship with some of the people he works with, suspicions that are not allayed when she’s invited to an office party and meets his colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick, “Love and Monsters”).

Laura’s concerns are only exacerbated when her father turns up unexpectedly. Felix (Bill Murray, “The Dead Don’t Die”) is a globetrotting semi-retired art dealer. He is also a notorious womanizer who subscribes to some rather unconventional ideas regarding male/female relations – ideas that, among other things, led to the demise of his marriage to Laura’s mother.

Before long, Felix’s ideas about relationships are raising more questions in Laura’s mind regarding her own marriage. With a glee that borders on unseemly, Felix throws himself wholeheartedly into “helping” her determine the particulars of Dean’s infidelity – behavior that Felix considers essentially a foregone conclusion. Despite Laura’s misgivings, Felix pushes forward, using his significant charms to enrapture people of all kinds, from every layer of social strata, as they wander through the city and beyond.

Laura’s concerns lead to her allowing her dad to steer her, which in turn results in her making some questionable-at-best decisions – decisions that may well prove to be informative in ways she neither anticipates nor desires.

“On the Rocks” is a delightful examination of relationships and how different people can have different perspectives as to what those relationships actually mean to those involved. The story itself is simple, but by no means unsophisticated – by minimizing the excess trappings, Coppola and company can focus their attentions on the relationships at the story’s center.

That isn’t to say that the relationships are all there is. Few filmmakers have as gifted an eye for urban settings as Sofia Coppola; she has a real understanding of what makes a city special and a knack for capturing the energy of the setting. The result is a loving look at several slices of NYC society, evocative and engaging.

Still, what drives this movie are the performances. Specifically, we need to talk about Bill Murray. Murray has long cultivated a reputation as a folk hero, a walking talking urban legend who turns up unexpectedly and behaves in a manner both charming and absurd. As Felix, he brings that exact same dynamic to the screen. Murray’s charisma is plentiful and obvious and used to great effect here. Felix is a Peter Pan figure, one whose circumstances have allowed him to never grow up, It’s an arrested development that has colored all of his relationships – romantic, familial and otherwise – and Murray plays it beautifully. Set against Murray’s impishness, we have Jones, who uses her considerable straight-man skills to full effect. Her Laura – grounded even as her fretting takes her on flights of fidelity fancy – is a sounding board for her father’s wild ideas. She’s also good at presenting someone hiding her sadness behind a veneer of fortitude. And the two of them together? Forget about it – they’re a truly dynamic duo.

Wayans is very good here as well; it’s nice to see him get the opportunity to do something outside his perceived comfort zone. He gives an appropriately low-key performance. Henwick is very good, as is Jenny Slate as one of Laura’s fellow moms at school; Slate captures in just a handful of moments the exact embodiment of a very particular type. But ultimately, this movie is about Murray and Jones.

“On the Rocks” is a lovely film, funny and poignant. Granted, it might not be quite the film promised by its pedigree, but it still succeeds, thanks to Coppola’s gifts and the wonderful work done by Murray and Jones. Fathers and daughters will find particular joy in this story, but the truth is that anyone who has ever loved and/or been loved will see something here that resonates with them and their experience.

[4 out 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2020 13:24

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