A Smooth Story with a Neat Relationship – On the Rocks

The hardest love stories to tell are the ones that happen after the fall. It’s so easy to show people finding one another and getting that triumphant moment of romance or familial rapport. But what happens once those relationships become routine, when one settles down and settles in for the long haul? That is the core concern of Sofia Coppola’s latest character study, On the Rocks, a funny, charming, and sweet look at some pretty heavy themes of sexuality and betrayal.

The film begins with what would normally be considered the “happy ending” of a more mainstream romantic comedy, with Laura (Rashida Jones) and her new husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) having a moment of intimate spontaneity. But just as quickly as that scene begins, we cut to the present day, where Laura deals with two kids and writer’s block while Dean works overlong hours as a tech entrepreneur, leaving the pair with little time to each other, and their only displays of affections being perfunctory and kid-friendly. When Dean returns from a business trip and seems surprised to be making out with his own wife, Laura becomes fearful that he’s cheating on her.

Enter Laura’s father, Felix, a wealthy and philandering art dealer, played with absolute gusto by Bill Murray. As wide as the quality range on her films can be at times, the professional relationship between Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray has been a universal positive. Murray is in peak form throughout the proceedings, shamelessly flirting with every woman who’s not his daughter, talking his way out of traffic tickets because he knows the cop’s father and grandfather, being a loving grandpa himself, and engaging in the “investigation” of Dean with the joie de vivre of someone who knows this might be his last great adventure, even if the consequences are devastating to those he loves.

And it’s a delicate balance Murray walks with Felix. He tracks Dean and uses his contacts to keep tabs because, as someone who cheated on his own wife (Laura’s mother), he knows how men act in these situations. He even waxes philosophical about the possibility that men are hard-wired against monogamy. But at the same time, he’s exceedingly protective of Laura. He’s having his fun, sure, but he’s also genuinely concerned for his daughter’s happiness and well-being. It’s inherently contradictory to be okay with his own womanizing but contemptuous of what Dean may be up to, but just as he thinks it’s male instinct to sleep with as many women as possible, he also has an absolute protective default setting to his children and grandchildren.

It’s frustrating at times, but also fascinating. It also hit a little home for me, as my stepfather acts in a very similar matter. When we had family dinners out when I was a teenager, he’d flirt with the waitress right in front of all of us, including my mother. Now, for the record, he did it in a harmless, funny way, and mom was laughing along with the rest of us. There was nothing untoward in any of it, just a bit of fun from a guy who admitted his faults and would rather have a good time than a boring one. For Felix, however, every person he meets is either a potential business partner or sexual conquest, and while it’s weird to openly flirt in front of his daughter, it’s just as weird for the women to flirt back, while they assume that Laura is just the latest ingenue rather than flesh and blood.

And yet despite all that, Murray is undeniably charming. Even if you were to object to these actions in real life, you mostly can’t help but smile and laugh at it all in the movie, because there is genuine bonding and comedy going on throughout this farce. That’s mostly because Coppola’s screenplay allows these characters to be real people. She doesn’t condemn Felix, but she also doesn’t completely let him off the hook, as Laura serves as both project and reminder of his past sins, forcing him to do his best not just out of paternal obligation, but a genuine desire to right past wrongs without denying his own validity as a person. That also allows for some really great subtle humor, as Jones and Murray trade barbs with rapier wit that underscores their feelings in the best way possible. Additionally, as an example of her monotony as a domestic, there’s a runner where Laura is on line to pick her kids up from school, hearing stories from her friend Vanessa (a brilliant if underutilized Jenny Slate) about her latest beau, which is itself almost a play-within-the-play as the plot and emotional arc progresses.

All of this serves the central theme, which is the insecurity associated with mundanity. All of this starts because Dean initiates a romantic moment that surprises even himself, to say nothing of Laura. They’re so stuck in their routines, that anything resembling raw sexuality is very out of place, a distant memory to that opening scene. Felix’s entire persona is similarly tied to this idea, because he, like Laura, got to a point in his marriage where it just felt like going through motions, and the feeling of being the center of someone’s world again was too much to resist. Laura’s fighting against that impulse while Felix gave into it, but they both (as well as Dean) come at the issue from the same emotional starting point, which only strengthens their relationship as the film goes on.

There are a few hiccups here and there, mostly in regards to the resolution and Dean’s overall behavior, and I’m sure that especially in this economy and the state of the world, the travails of a few wealthy, privileged people in New York amounts to a hill of beans. But for the most part, I found myself smiling and laughing throughout. This is some of Coppola’s better writing, I could identify a real-life analog for Felix in my personal life, and honestly, a little bit of sentimental escapism was just what I needed when I watched it. Also, thank God for Bill Murray’s continued existence. Is this Lost in Translation? No. But it’s also not The Beguiled, so why not enjoy yourself? Have a drink and kick back, why don’t you?

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a Bill Murray fan? How do you take your whiskey? Let me know!

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