“On the Rocks” is a bitter cocktail to swallow

On the Rocks Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks. (A24/Apple TV+)

Sofia Coppola’s latest is a wry, disarming look at our need for love and the willful ignorance it leads to.

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Apparently, New York is the city of dreams. It’s made of stars, streetlights, stone, and cement. Does that actually mean anything? No, but most people think it does. They think it as they pick their kids up. They think it as they dodge others’ blathering, and they think it as they spend time with family and friends. They don’t, however, get much from their passions. No matter how lucky they are, there’s a stinging chance that they’re lonely. And quite simply, they just can’t bear to see it.

Even if it’s hard to notice at first, a lot of these people are Laura (Rashida Jones). Her apartment is great. She’s made it as a writer. Her vocation is others’ vacation. When her dad, Felix (Bill Murray), takes her out for her birthday, they go to the restaurant booth where Humphrey Bogart proposed to Lauren Bacall. When Laura scurries her kids (Alexandra Mary Reimer and Liyanna Muscat) to school, it’s sweet in an innocuous sort of way. Love is in the air, but that isn’t to say it’s authentic—or even specific to Laura itself. At least her troubles will cease to exist for a bit if she doesn’t think about them too much.

She’s stumbled into a fantasy that millions aspire towards, yet despite the economic difference between her and those on the other side of the screen, she remains an audience surrogate. On the Rocks may appear to Sofia Coppola’s most minor film (and it might be), but it’s disarmingly successful largely due to the empathy she pays her heroine. That’s also to say it isn’t specific to the viewers themselves either. On the Rocks may dress itself up as a romantic comedy or a farce, but it’s really just following New York’s lead. In reality, it’s a tragedy.

On the Rocks

It’s not apparent from the jump, but it’s so crucial to its DNA that Coppola’s guiding hand overrides the plot. And that plot has been done many times: Laura’s husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), has just returned from another business trip. He’s the type that pops a Xanax when flying, so his behavior is a bit off when he snuggles up to her in bed that night. Soon after, she finds a woman’s toiletry bag in his suitcase. Dean says it belongs to a colleague named Fiona (Jessica Henwick), an explanation she’d rather accept and forget about. Alas, her playboy of a dad suspects something else is up.

In most movies, figuring out whether Dean is cheating would be the endgame. In On the Rocks, it’s damn near circumstantial to the point that it defuses its own tension. Coppola doesn’t so much for father-daughter hijinx. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have those moments; it does, but they function more as window dressing and punch lines more than an actual narrative drive. The movie’s clear about that too. It doesn’t use montages or iconography to establish Laura’s daily routine. Instead, it takes viewers through her routine for 20 minutes, and no wacky plans unfold until 38 of its 90 minutes have passed.

To focus on them would be to propel a lie, and it’d be especially cruel to Laura herself. Coppola doesn’t do that. She and her regular editor, Sarah Flack, drift through the banal. They hold on the conversations between Laura and Felix, and Coppola’s dialogue, while funny, is overt and sparring enough to simultaneously work as parody and tragedy. And with that comes what might be the savviest aspect of On the Rocks: It gets off on tricking audiences into thinking it’s cute.

Coppola’s dialogue, while funny, is overt and sparring enough to simultaneously work as parody and tragedy.

Never mind the latent chauvinism Laura endures at nearly every corner, even in the form of Dean’s birthday gift to her. Never mind the fact minor characters assume Laura and her father to be a couple throughout. And of course, pay no attention to the fact that the marriage audiences are conditioned to focus on is doomed to fail from the beginning. Not once does Coppola pander to audiences. Laura and Dean’s marriage is skeletal, and she sees it that way throughout.

And with that, Coppola gives viewers what they expect to unfold while robbing it of its payoff. You’re rooting for Laura to be okay by the end because you’re really rooting for yourself. Is it natural to want love? Of course. It’s necessary, even. But when you’re so desperate for love that you don’t care whether it’s authentic, that’s a recipe for tragedy. It’s just too bad we can’t realize it when we’re talking about ourselves. It’s simpler to just accept the fantasies we’re given. It’s just so much easier to just treat it like a movie.

On the Rocks is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release, in select theaters October 2 and on AppleTV+ starting October 23.

On the Rocks Trailer:

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