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On the rocks

Peter W Sheehan  |  24 September 2020

ON THE ROCKS. Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, and Jessica Henwick. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references). 97 min.

 This American comedy-drama was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and stars Bill Murray, who worked with Coppola – and who directed him in Lost in Translation (2003), which received multiple awards in 2004. It tells the story of a daughter reconnecting with her father, after becoming suspicious that her husband has been unfaithful to her. The film was completed, just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

 Laura (Rashida Jones) is a young mother, with two children, who considers she is happily married when she becomes conscious that her husband, Dean (Marian Wayans), is getting home reliably late from his office, and is taking too many business trips away. She knows he is heavily involved in a project with an attractive, new account manager, Fiona (Jessica Henwick).

 Laura wants to save her marriage, and she approaches her roving father, Felix (Bill Murray), who has led an impulsive, pleasure-loving, wayward life, and who, in her eyes, has never ‘acted normal around any woman.’ Laura has always disapproved of her father’s behaviour in the past, but considers he might now be the right person to help her cope with her present situation.

Felix thinks he knows exactly what is going on, and works adventurously to explore the situation. He joins forces with Laura to track Dean through New York City – experiencing its highs and lows, and exploring the different levels of its social strata. While unravelling the meaning of Dean’s behaviour, they bond together as father and daughter to find meaning in their own relationship that they had not found, or faced, before.

Felix sees gender relationships in an entirely different way from Laura. Laura knows that Felix, in thoroughly sexist fashion, has dedicated himself to celebrating women, but Felix regrets that he turned away from Laura’s mother for ‘the glow of affair(s)’. Laura and Felix know they can only work to try to solve the situation, if they are willing to reassess their own relationship, and they do.

 The film is a spirited comedy that delves wittily into the relationships between husband and wife, and between father and daughter. It addresses the age gap between young and old, and the need to find ways through conflicts in human relationships, when crises loom. Dramatically, it offers provocative insights into what makes relationships work, while at the same time it explores the wonders of New York City – a city that never sleeps in its constant efforts to stimulate the senses.

As in The Beguiled (2017), Sofia Coppola attacks normal notions of feminine and male virtue, and exposes strategies of male and female attraction along the way. The film is crafted well, and is impressively acted. It offers a woman’s point of view about a world mistakenly viewed by Felix (and others) as belonging to males. The film is highly critical of the concept of guileless women, and communicates its messages in an entertaining way.

As it develops, the movie becomes a tale of deceitful happenings that accumulates force under astute direction. Coppola is a director who never lets her films lose control, and this one is especially well scripted. She directs to explore gender tension in revealing ways, and Bill Murray works as well with her as he did in Lost in Translation, 17 years ago. The verbal exchanges between Laura and Felix sparkle with wit that keeps the film engagingly alive.

This is a film that aims to intentionally project its appeal in thought-provoking fashion. Viewers will ask, in a typical Coppola way, whether the seduction of one sex by another should ever be conceptualised as a manipulation by just one. The film becomes particularly thoughtful, when one throws age differences into the mix – as this film does. In the end, ‘love triumphs’, but Sofia Coppola ends it all with lots of questions remaining about what might happen in the future.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of Jesuit Media
Released in selected cinemas from October 2, 2020, and globally in Australia from 23 October on Apple TV+


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