[su_dropcap size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]n many ways, Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks feels a lot like a spiritual cousin to her earlier Lost in Translation. Both films show us characters in crisis, adrift in the emotional doldrums. For Laura (Rashida Jones), confusion and frustration have settled onto her marriage and career like a heavy fog, isolating her in a frozen mist. She’s akin to Scarlett Johansson’s character in Translation, albeit with the benefit of a few more years and a lot more wisdom.
This difference endows Rocks with its key strength: Whereas many filmmakers could’ve approached such a mid-life chasm with brittle resignation, Coppola opts for a dry, crackling sense of humor. For all her despondence, Laura keeps a level head, and often finds rich irony within the downward swirl of her personal life. Rocks could’ve been a slow-burning tragedy. Instead, it’s a charming little lark.
The movie begins with a woman who seems to have everything. Dean, Laura’s husband (Marlon Wayans), is an ambitious, amiable man. Their daughters (Alexandra and Anna Reimer, Liyanna Muscat) are so plucky and precious, it’s as if the filmmakers assembled them out of a kit. The whole family lives in a cozy Manhattan apartment, where the distant din of rumbling subways and car horns seems to waft in and gift the family with an extra dose of energy. Everything looks so perfect, so ready for Instagram stories. But, underneath this sheen of success, Laura can’t escape a growing suspicion that the ice is starting to melt and crack.
For starters, Laura worries that Dean’s seven-year itch is about to break him out in hives. He travels–no, like a lot. He leaves early and creeps in late. When they kiss, she gets the sense that his mind is somewhere else. And that’s before Laura meets the pretty post-grads who surround Dean at work. They’re all so friendly with her. Maybe too friendly. It’s not long before more red flags pop up: Laura finds a woman’s handbag in Dean’s luggage. He whiffs hard on her birthday present, but has apparently dining at fancy restaurants and shopping at Cartier’s. All this odd behavior could add up to everything or nothing, causing Laura to feel a mixture of terror, self-doubt, and determination in getting to the bottom of it all.
Enter Laura’s dad. Felix Keane (Bill Murray) is a quasi-Renaissance Man who finds a way to fill every room with his personality. His charm is like cured saddle leather, soaked in casual confidence and layers of well-rounded intelligence. Felix is also a lifelong hound dog who rationalizes his skirt-chasing with pseudo-intellectual quips about how men are biologically hard-wired to follow their dicks. Laura goes to Felix with her predicament because, well, it takes one to know one.
Felix is immediately suspicious. He looks at Laura’s circumstantial evidence and concludes that Dean must be cheating. Felix transforms into Sam Spade, offering to expose his son-in-law for what he really is. With that, father and daughter turn into sleuths, although their investigation leads to some startling results.
On the Rocks could’ve been something darker, but Coppola and company make sure it never loses its liveliness. Murray neatly folds his own personality into Felix’s mannered swagger, giving the character just the right amount of irresistible goofiness. It’s easy to see why not one can hate him for very long. Meanwhile, Jones delivers one of her finest performances, playing Laura as a good woman pushed to her emotional limits. Wayans, who many may remember from In Living Color and a slew of gross-out comedies, is astonishing as Dean, a character who could be either a misunderstood hero or an odious villain. He presents as a decent guy and loving father, which would make his possible sins cut that much deeper.
Take all that and add some gorgeous location filming–both NYC and the Caribbean become supporting characters in their own right–and you get On the Rocks. It’s a touch of light drama, enhanced by Coppola’s wry screenplay. She’s ridden some version of this particular ride and lived long enough to look back and laugh about it–larger-than-life father and all. That makes this both a fun and absorbingly intelligent way to spend 96 minutes of your life.
96 min. R.