Dir: Sofia Coppola. Starring: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate. 12A cert, 97 mins
Sofia Coppola’s latest opens with the husky, melodious voice of Bill Murray’s Felix. He tells his young daughter, Laura: “Remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You’re mine until you get married... Then you’re still mine.” On the Rocks explores what it’s like to live under the shadow of a parent who looms so large, lives so boldly, that their progeny is left feeling more like an accessory than a fully rounded individual. Presumably, Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, can relate on some level. There are a handful of other parallels to the director’s own life here. Laura, in her later years (and played by Rashida Jones), has two daughters, as does Coppola. Both of them live in Manhattan, comfortably and in effortless glamour. It’s tempting, even, to position the film as a spiritual successor to Lost in Translation (2003). There was an element of self-portraiture to Scarlett Johansson’s lonesome waif. The same appears to be true here.
And yet, things have changed in the passing years. On the Rocks is the most grounded of Coppola’s films, though its wit and charm are just as plentiful. The director sets all her stories in hermetically sealed worlds of wealth and privilege, but her young characters have always been depicted as rare birds trapped in gilded cages – quite literally when it came to the housebound Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides (1999). Laura feels trapped in a different way, suspended between the two biggest influences in her life, her father and her husband (Marlon Wayans’s Dean, enigmatic throughout). Felix, an art dealer, dotes on her; he playfully calls her “shortie” and “kiddo”. On a night-time excursion, he brings her American caviar packed in a branded cooler bag.
But he’s an old-school chauvinist, fixated on the image of himself as an aristocratic playboy. Felix flirts with every new woman he meets (at one point, he correctly guesses that their long-limbed waitress trained as a ballerina). He insists that he’s going deaf specifically to the sound of women’s voices – “I think it’s the pitch.” Felix may act suave, but there’s no doubt he’s left a path of casual cruelty in his wake. Laura’s husband, meanwhile, is loving when he’s present, but frequently distracted by work. She has started to suspect that he might be cheating on her. Her father immediately seizes on the idea as proof of man’s primal nature. “Males are forced to fight to dominate and impregnate all females,” he tells her, attempting to pass it off as a piece of wisdom. It’s more likely he’s trying to soothe the guilt of his own past infidelities.
Coppola leans into screwball comedy here, since Murray and Jones make for such delightful opposites: he’s eccentric with a thick layer of despondence; she’s a beacon of calm and reason. Murray doesn’t quite replicate his performance in Lost in Translation – Felix is far better at hiding his loneliness – but offers proof that he’s always at his most sparkling when working with Coppola (the pair also collaborated on 2015’s A Very Murray Christmas).
On the Rocks contains no great revelations. No one whispers the secrets of the universe into another’s ear. Laura’s transformation is a quiet one, a gentle untethering from the restrictions she’s put on herself as “someone’s daughter” and “someone’s wife”, and into a more rounded sense of self. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd frames New York in a way that’s less glitzy and stimulating than the Tokyo of Lost in Translation, but rich with the private pleasures of nightcaps in gold-lit bars and streets bathed in a rich, velvety darkness. Coppola’s film is a comfort to sink into.