' ' Cinema Romantico: On the Rocks

Monday, December 21, 2020

On the Rocks

“On the Rocks”, in which Laura (Rashida Jones) is pushed by her playboy father Felix (Bill Murray) to investigate her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) possibly having an extra-marital affair, bears all the elements of screwball. What transpires, however, is not frenetic or even laugh-out-loud so much as chilled out, dry, like a deceptively strong martini that leaves you reeling. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, in tandem with editor Sarah Flack, favors long shots and two shots of her two actors, usually drinking cocktails with an air of melancholy in dimly New York hotel bars. This makes great hay of Jones’s unmatched skepticism, pursing her lips and rolling her eyes, taking whatever bit of bluster masquerading as philosophy that Murray’s character emits at any given time and both letting it register and roll right off. In Laura and Felix’s first conversation over lunch, Coppola cuts between a medium shot of Murray and a reverse shot of Laura, quietly underlining the dynamic, how he fills a room at the expense of everyone else and she is forced to navigate his casual sexism, his offhand cruelty. After all, before the film even fades in, we hear Felix in voiceover state “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You are mine until you get married. Then you’re still mine.”  

“On the Rocks” begins on Laura and Dean’s wedding night. Wearing just her skivvies and her veil, she jumps into a pool where Dean lounges, a romantic moment doubling as an emblematic leap of faith. But as the movie flashes forward to the present, her faith is being tested. Not just by Dean, away frequently on business with myriad conspicuous clues that he might be seeing a co-worker on the sly, but in her work as a writer and in her role as a mother of two. Coppola’s prologue before Felix enters the picture, of Laura ferrying her kids to school activities, getting them to bed, not so much talking to another mother (Jenny Slate) as just listening to her vent, trying to find time to write, deftly evinces a life flying by and standing still at once; a simple cut from giving her daughter a bath to boiling noodles brings home motherhood’s strange push/pull between satisfaction and sameness. This tone-setter concludes with Laura sprawled on her bed, echoing the opening shot to Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”, though less wistful. Laura is just worn out. 

When Felix, shows up, he does not rejuvenate, despite what he may think, but complicates and frustrates and exacerbates. Murray deploys his patented master of ceremonies air to perfectly, comically embody the kind of good cop grandfather to Laura’s bad cop mom, walking right in and catering to his grandchildren’s every whim, making them milkshakes, letting them watch a television program for adults. That sort of here for you now, gone tomorrow vibe dominates his every decision, even as he inserts himself into his daughter’s life, not so much encouraging Laura’s suspicions about Dean as driving them, taking her on a wild ride, evoked in the literal car ride they take on a woefully designed stakeout where, in trying to follow Dean’s taxi, Felix runs a red light in his sports car and gets pulled over.

The scene is “On the Rocks” in capsule. Not only does Felix insert himself into his daughter’s personal dilemma and make it all about him, he charms his way out of a ticket, appealing to the cop’s sense of family (Felix knows his dad), quietly evoking a wealthy white man’s relationship with the police and demonstrating how easy the world is for him, how it bends to his whims even when he makes a mess of a things. But if “On the Rocks” has a breezy air about it, rest assured, Coppola, unlike the police, is not letting him off scot-free. Because Laura isn’t. In a late scene, she confronts him on making a mess of things, a question he dances around, admitting fault in the powerful man’s way, by not quite saying what he did and conspicuously stopping short of saying he’s sorry. It is a dark undercurrent in a movie where the narrative only appears slight upon first glance, not building to any grand revelation or life-changing admission but rather the gradual realization that life already is what you thought it was.

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