Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Take to the Big Apple in Sofia Coppola’s Marital Caper.
DIRECTED BY SOFIA COPPOLA/2020
Not to take anything away from his reputation as an enigmatic wildcard, but Bill Murray is reliable. It’s been true for decades now that when you see him on the poster of a film, you can be altogether certain of the register of that film. Because when one hires Bill Murray, one hires that register droll spunk, intuitive introspection. This is a great thing.
Not quite as great, though, is On the Rocks, the new father/daughter comedy from filmmaker Sofia Coppola. Although On the Rocks is being touted as Coppola’s reunion with Murray since her 2003 breakout Lost in Translation (though let’s not forget Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas!), it’s worth noting that he doesn’t make his star entrance until a good fifteen minutes in. Despite the best efforts of leading actor Rashida Jones (right at home with both Coppola and Murray), the film’s already slid into the rut of the unremarkable by then.
Suspecting her up-and-comer entrepreneur husband (Marlon Wayans, very good in his “is or isn’t he?” dramatic supporting role) of carrying on an extramarital affair, Jones slowly but surely ends up going all in with her charismatic scene-stealing extroverted father (Murray). Though he’s been in and out of her life (and always on his own terms) her whole life, their relationship is cordial though understandably prickly. The screenplay will see you this, though.
Being something of an expert in the ways of spousal cheating, Murray springs into action on his daughter’s behalf, ready and willing to go to any lengths to catch her husband in the act. By the third act, On the Rocks goes full caper, albeit as a most wry one. They’re climbing fences and sneaking around and bickering and trying not to get caught, but all through the lens of residual Sofia Coppola ennui. From this, however, the inevitable father-daughter connection/resolution emerges, as well as what most anyone would consider a resolved, recognizable movie. For this, fans of the previously atypical filmmaker might be both intrigued and disappointed.
On the Rocks does pop, and pops well, whenever Murray is on screen. Playing Jones’s chauvinistic and wealthy stuffed shirt of a father, Murray actually transcends into excellence at times. For just a moment there, we feel for him as he nearly breaks down while recalling the death of a partner in a past long-term fling. That is, until a minute later when his daughter, having none of it, totally calls him on the damage he inflicted upon his own family while he was out sowing his wild oats. The whole scene, in a cocktail bar at night, is one of the uneven film’s real keepers. As is a dopey car chase through NYC which culminates somewhat unexpectedly, but exactly in keeping with Murray’s persona. It’s that reliability that he brings.
Set in New York City (refreshingly unconventionally presented), On the Rocks is not only Coppola’s first bona fide east coast movie, but also her most conventional to date. Not that veering into the mainstream (or something closely resembling it) is a bad choice for an auteur writer/director, but this outing is a long way from her acclaimed debut The Virgin Suicides (1999) or even the underrated The Bling Ring (2013). Coppola’s shift into normalcy is bumpier than not, as it’s apparent she taken to smuggling in her current thoughts on patriarchal flightiness and the tensions on marital infidelity, motherhood, business management, and yes, being the grown daughter of a bigger-than-life father.
Such celluloid confessionals are nothing new to Coppola; what’s new is her clear grab at the brass ring of mainstream comedy success on her own terms. Coppola though, despite her successes with Murray, has never demonstrated any kind of real comedic acumen. She does, however, absolutely know when to get out of the way of the comedic acumen she’s looking for.
Many have heard the urban legends of how Murray, living his most freewheeling real life, has surprised common folk by turning up to play in their street basketball game or swiped French fries and coyly left them with, “No one will ever believe you.” But people can actually believe a lot these days, which actually threatens on some level to render On the Rocks’ rapscallion cad version of Murray ever so less effective. As great as he is, nothing he does in the film measures up to the reported tales at billmurraystory.com.
Good thing, then, that it doesn’t actually need to. Murray famously gave Coppola the runaround when she was aggressively courting him for his masterful role in Lost in Translation. But once a director lands in the actor’s “plus column”, he seemingly becomes a willing member of that filmmaker’s stock company, game for whatever they might have in mind for him. (See also the filmographies of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Ivan Reitman). With the venerable comedian/actor now age seventy, the race might officially be on for such auteurs to catch, bottle and present the popular essence of Bill Murray via various on-screen tributes of sorts. That is, by far, the greatest success of On the Rocks– and perhaps it’s smuggled message that once again, a woman’s story is commandeered by an irresistible blowhard of a male.
ON THE ROCKS, an Apple Original Films and A24 Release, will debut on Apple TV+ on Friday, October 23.