Sofia Coppola’s latest, On the Rocks, is a vague and out of touch depiction of a working mother’s relationship crisis. The film is out tomorrow on Apple TV+.
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The writing was on the wall when Sofia Coppola named Daddy’s Home one of her favourite movies of the century. Coppola’s latest effort, On the Rocks, might look a little prettier than your average studio comedy, and its humour is more sophisticated. But its pat, oversimplified characterisation — the way it insists on tying everything up in a neat bow — sits right at home among the Daddy’s Homes of the world. It’s a disappointment from Coppola, whose films have always experimented with style (detached, still frames in Somewhere; Instagram aesthetics in The Bling Ring; gauzy period drama in The Beguiled). On the Rocks is fun while it lasts, but it feels anonymous, and ultimately trite.
As with most Coppola films, privilege is all around, but On the Rocks doesn’t even attempt to comment on protagonist Laura’s (Rashida Jones) exorbitant wealth, meaning that wealth only serves to alienate her from the viewer. Laura is a stay-at-home writer and mother of two young girls who is balancing those two sides of her life — although she never has trouble calling on a last-minute babysitter. Money isn’t an issue for Laura, who married rich and comes from a rich family. Her office is so huge that I spent the first half of the film thinking it was part of an office block, only to realise that it’s just one more room in her bougie New York apartment. Jones is a watchable lead, but it’s hard to empathise with Laura’s malaise when her dissatisfaction is ill-defined. She seems to be struggling to write — but why, when she has no financial constraints and plenty of time to wander around her office looking pensive? And what is she even writing?
Laura finds a distraction from her ennui when she starts to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), of cheating; Coppola does a good job of characterising Dean as a guy who’s not terrible but a bit insensitive. In a scene that mirrors one from this year’s Proxima, Dean abandons Laura at his work party and leaves her to talk to another woman that she doesn’t know, just assuming they’ll get along because they’re women. He doesn’t sense that his wife feels uncomfortable as an outsider in his workplace and might want him to stick by her side. When the couple go out for dinner another night, Dean makes little effort to ask Laura questions and keeps checking his phone — a great contrast to Laura’s birthday night out with her father, Felix (Bill Murray), who makes her laugh and ensures she feels special. Whenever Dean slips up, Laura smiles at him through gritted teeth, never voicing her dissatisfaction; he never picks up on it. Coppola may as well have called the film Communication Problems: The Movie.
On the Rocks is hugely elevated by the charming presence of Bill Murray, reuniting with Coppola 17 years after they first worked together on Lost in Translation. A large portion of the film features Felix egging Laura on to investigate her suspicion that Dean is cheating, from following him around town in Felix’s hilariously old-fashioned car, to literally tailing him to Mexico. It’s really a ploy for Felix, an aging playboy, to spend more time with daughter, and the film is at its best when it leans into their endearing relationship. The trope of chasing a cheating husband around town would feel tired — again, please, just communicate — but Murray’s easy charm makes these scenes sing.
*The final two paragraphs of this review contains spoilers for On the Rocks
The trouble with On the Rocks, which is mostly lightly enjoyable, is that the ending lets Dean so thoroughly off the hook that it feels retrograde in its gender politics. Laura finds out that Dean wasn’t cheating after all — the pink washbag she found in his suitcase was a red herring, and the woman from work he’s been spending so much time with is, in fact, a lesbian. But even so, Coppola has shown Dean to be an inattentive partner, and when the couple finally confront each other, Laura makes this heartbreaking assertion: “It’s exhausting to try to love you enough.” Why then does Coppola allow them a happy ending without making them work for it? Dean agrees to pay more attention, the two kiss and make up, and the film ends on a note of resolution.
It’s as if Coppola is gaslighting both Laura and the viewer: insisting that there’s nothing wrong with the happy couple, even though she spent a whole film exhibiting the myriad problems in their relationship. At the end of the film, Laura is finally able to write again because she’s reached some kind of personal breakthrough. But that breakthrough is so poorly conceived, it reads more like Laura accepting the confines of an emotionally unsatisfying relationship. It’s strange for Coppola, whose films have previously embraced unconventional relationships (Lost in Translation), critiqued toxic masculinity (Somewhere), and shown women free themselves from the confines of the male gaze (The Beguiled). It’s as if she somehow forgot that society has more options for women now than resigning themselves to monogamy.
On the Rocks will be available on Apple TV+ tomorrow.