The emotional restlessness and partnership-paranoia brought on by the doldrums of stay-at-home parenting fuel the polished, subtly poignant On the Rocks (Apple TV). It's the latest effort from writer-director Sofia Coppola, who has certainly made more stylish films over the course of her career. Still, her gentle-yet-confident directorial touch is as potent as ever. Stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray make the material—which is unremarkable on its own and could very well fall flat in less capable hands—sing.
Laura (Jones) takes care of her two children while her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), devotes most of his time to his job running a surging tech company, flying around the world, making big-time deals. He's consumed by work; she feels like more of a side project. Their NYC apartment is gorgeous, and they've clearly built a cushy life for themselves, but Laura can't help but feel a little unfulfilled.
When Laura finds a woman's toiletry bag in Dean's luggage, she starts to spiral. Her wealthy, well-connected father, Felix (Bill Murray), helps her get to the bottom of Dean's apparent infidelity. A player himself who makes passes at every woman he and Laura encounter on their investigative outings (to Laura's disgust), Felix is as embarrassing and toxic as he is helpful.
Without question, the reason to see this movie is the fluid, natural rapport between Jones and Murray. Their relationship is believable even in the movie's silliest moments (a run-in with the NYPD comes to mind), and Murray manages to make Felix endearing despite his objectionable behavior around women, not to mention his archaic view of gender dynamics.
Indeed, Murray's antics are supremely entertaining, and his comedic gifts are on full display, but what's brilliant here is Jones' reactions to him. She shoots piercing glares at him that say "how dare you" and "I love you" all at once, and it's smart on Coppola's part that Laura doesn't let her dad off the hook when he does or says bad things but also never writes him off completely. This feels real.
Coppola rightfully focuses her spotlight on Jones and Murray's performances (Wayans is serviceable here but doesn't overachieve like the other two), but there are a lot of fascinating societal themes elegantly woven throughout. For example: the stifling of a stay-at-home parent's personal ambitions; the sting of generational abandonment and; the precariousness of balancing independence and self-fulfillment with the pressures and pitfalls of partnership and parenthood. There's a maturity to the material, which may not allow the film to thrive in the age of rage-culture America, though its virtues will surely stand the test of time.
Jenny Slate as Vanessa and Rashida Jones as Laura (IMDB)
Is On the Rocks a minor work for Coppola? Perhaps. But it's still a rock-solid film that'll live in the back of your mind for a while, even if it doesn't blow your socks off. While the film's imagery isn't as ravishing as a lot of Coppola's other work, there's still artistic intent to appreciate, here. A lot of the film is about domestic malaise, which is captured visually and, yes, may come off as unremarkable to some viewers. This is intentional, of course, and is contrasted by Laura's special moments with Felix, which are romantic and cinematic, as when they zoom around Manhattan at night in a vintage car, a bottle of wine and a container of caviar clanking around in the console.
Jenny Slate as Vanessa makes a handful of brief appearances as a fellow elementary school parent. She almost steals the show as she goes on meandering, emotionally vapid rants about her woefully uninteresting personal life, reinforcing the fact that Laura can never, ever get a quiet moment to herself. The claustrophobia of Laura's life as an overworked mother and neglected partner is explored in myriad ways, some more subtle than others. A particularly stinging moment sees her sitting at her desk when she finally has a moment to herself, poised to chip away at the book she's been writing, only to find herself utterly uninspired and unable to conjure any words at all.
On the Rocks is funny, smart, heartwarming, and surprisingly poignant if you're willing to meet it halfway and pick up on its more understated moments. Spending time watching Murray do his thing is as blissful to watch as it has ever been, and Jones proves that she's more than worthy of being his onscreen counterpart. There's an effortlessness to the film that speaks to Coppola's growing confidence as a filmmaker--she's got nothing left to prove, which frees her up to be honest, open, and personal in her work.