Thu. Oct 29th, 2020

NYFF Review: ‘On the Rocks’ is a subtle reminder of what Sofia Coppola does best

Like most Sofia Coppola films, there are a million little things that build the world of On the Rocks,rather than a neon sign pointing to the film’s thesis: There are endless takeout coffee cups. There’s too many books on the shelves for Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) to have read them all. There’s the baseless communications jargon of Dean’s job that perfectly captures the vapidity and vagueness of so many business ventures. And there’s the creeping sense that while you might manage to elbow your way in to this life—the quiet madness of upper-middle class domesticity—you can never really get out.

On the Rocks showcases what Coppola does best, albeit with less dramatic flair or irony than some of her other works: She spotlights the loneliness, isolation, and anxiety of a comfortable life, opening herself up to the common criticism that she’s ungrateful or out-of-touch. As many viewers have already pointed out on social media, there’s a prominent Bernie Sanders sticker on Laura and Dean’s door, quietly lurking in the background while Dean plans his business trips and Laura avoids writing her book, and Laura’s father, Felix (Bill Murray), tells their young daughters how to best wear their hair to attract men. Dean’s company throws a party when they reach 500,000 followers, and Laura takes her toddler to mid-day Mommy-and-Me classes with other affluent moms with boho sensibilities. It feels too mean to call this family limousine liberals—and Laura’s too nice for you to genuinely root against her—but they’re not scrappy underdogs you’re hoping will beat the odds. They’re people who are supposed to have their shit together, and we don’t really know why they don’t.

Most of the film follows the antics of Laura and Felix as they hash out their differences of opinion on human nature, romance, and monogamy, and Felix showcases his outlandish misogyny through strange pseudo-historical anecdotes. He compliments Laura’s bangle by telling her that it’s a “reminder that women were once men’s property.” “I’m sure that’s exactly what Dean was going for,” she says, but still divulges her secrets and concerns to a man she judges as unable to forge a real connection with anyone other than her.

As Laura’s worries grow, Felix decides they should follow Dean to see if he’s having an affair with a colleague. Dean has very convenient excuses for all of Laura’s suspicions: A women’s cosmetics bag, complete with body oil, is just something his co-worker, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), couldn’t fit in her carry-on at the airport. Last minute trips are the fault of last minute clients. Laura’s assumptions feel grounded, even if we don’t really know enough about Dean to make a judgment call, and even as Felix’s decisions grow more and more whimsically haphazard. They wait for Dean outside a club and almost get into several car accidents trailing the cab that’s taking him away with Fiona, leading to one of the only scenes that acknowledges the racial difference between Laura’s young family and her father. Felix recognizes the cop who’s pulled him over as the son of an old friend and begins to wax nostalgic, at one point reaching in his jacket for his phone in a move that could make a police officer turn to force or violence if Felix were Black. But nothing happens, because Felix is white but also charming, and sickeningly good at sweet talk with everyone he meets. As Laura gripes, “It must be very nice to be you.”

In my mulling over On the Rocks, I broke a golden rule and dipped my toe into various reviews to take the pulse of a film that pulled out of the NYFF schedule in favor of a direct-to-streaming release with Apple TV+. The general consensus is that not enough happens in this film: It’s monotonous, and the relationships don’t always feel fully fleshed out, and while it’s aesthetically pleasing and Murray’s humor delights, it’s just a little boring. Beautiful people who are inexplicably sad are the cornerstone of Coppola’s filmography, and reviews asking why the audience should care about, for lack of a better term, “rich people problems” are just as common. (So, too, are reviews that essentially lament why Coppola hasn’t morphed into a carbon copy of her father since her last film, a refrain we’ve now hammered for 20 years.) While I do concede that we could’ve gotten to know Dean better, the monotony of Laura’s life in On the Rocks—the coffee, the kids’ classes, the bedtime stories, the morning rush—is sort of the point of it all. Laura doesn’t want to listen to another mom prattle on about her love life (Jenny Slate ,in a role first funny and then maddening), but she doesn’t want to be too rude to her either. She doesn’t want to believe that Dean is cheating on her, but she doesn’t want to directly confront him and change their dynamic. Most of all, she doesn’t want her life to be defined by the men in it, whether her husband or her father, but she knows it’s a symptom of the world she lives in. Coppola critiques the upper-crust world she inhabits with a cunning, subtle hand, showing the luxuriousness and ridiculousness of tears slowly falling in martinis, caviar spread on crackers during a New York stakeout, and a 90-year-old woman telling you that marriage is like a bank account. On the Rocks is another example of her trademark touches that feels both familiar and gratifying in its delicately unfolding plot.

Still, the ending of On the Rocks is a tad rushed: Laura’s marriage is suddenly fine after an awkward confrontation, she regains her focus on writing overnight, and her relationship with Felix is rebuilt from the time he returns from their caper in Mexico. Dean gives Laura a second birthday gift, a follow-up to the mixer-chopper kitchen contraption he gave her for some unknown reason. This time, it’s an engraved Cartier watch that Felix mistakenly thought Dean had picked out for Fiona. Laura then takes off Felix’s present—an old watch he had resized for her because she liked it as a kid—and puts on Dean’s, replacing the reminder of one man with another. We don’t know if this is done consciously, just as we don’t know if Felix’s quip about bangles is true or another of his tall tales. But it’s a sign that neither Laura’s marriage nor her anxieties about it is over: She will still wait up at night wondering just how much things have changed between her and Dean, and if she’s adapted fast enough to the fluctuating demands of her day-to-day life. She will still grow restless under the slow drip of life’s comforts, cajoled into complacency by the quiet hum of nothing really happening.

This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. On the Rocks will be available on Apple TV+ October 23.

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