Born into Hollywood aristocracy, Sofia Coppola was playing small roles in her father’s films while still in nappies. She made a promising directorial debut in 1999 with The Virgin Suicides, but it was her second movie, Lost in Translation (2003), that established her as a rising star. A beautiful, melancholy, funny film about an impossible romance in a foreign land, it had the kind of maturity directors discover when they’re 72, not 32.
Seventeen years and five features later, one can only wonder what went wrong. Until now Coppola’s second-best effort has been The Beguiled (2017), a remake of the old Don Siegel film of the same name. She set out to “feminise” the story, making it psychologically more complex but also slightly anaemic.
On the Rocks attempts to revisit some of the territory mapped out in Lost in Translationbut now the setting is New York City. The aura of strangeness that pervaded every scene in Tokyo has been replaced with a familiarity that verges on complacency. Bill Murray is back, playing the urbane man-of-the world, but now he is Felix, a wealthy, retired art dealer who does the odd deal to keep his hand in, between visits to fancy restaurants and high society parties.
In 2003 Murray was old enough to be Scarlett Johansson’s father, in this movie he isRashida Jones’s father – the kind of father who adores his daughter so much that he imagines himself the only man in her life. For Jones’s Laura, her father’s adoration comes with a caveat. The flattery, the gifts and trips to expensive eateries are all ways of making amends for his earlier philandering and selfishness.
Laura is no longer Daddy’s little girl. She is a successful novelist, and a mother of two small girls of her own. Her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is involved in a social media start-up company that sees him constantly attending functions and flying to far-flung locations.
The entire plot revolves around Laura’s growing suspicion that Dean is having an affair, most probably with his PA, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), who talks a-mile-a-minute and wears skirts that show off her legs.
While Laura sits in her swish but solitary writing studio, struggling to find the next sentence, Dean works in a social bee-hive, surrounded by bright young things tossing ideas at each other. When the couple are at home she’s on mothering duties, while he’s simply exhausted. And what was Fiona’s wash bag doing in Dean’s suitcase?
Enter Felix, back in NYC after his latest overseas jaunt. When Laura confides her suspicions about Dean, Felix launches into a long stream of anthropological, biological claptrap, assuring her this is absolutely typical of the male of the species, who is focused on sex, while the female looks after the nest – or words to that effect. He’s speaking authoritatively from his own experience, of course. He tells her the male can’t resist the lure of feeling special and desirable when the opportunity arises, no matter how much he might love his wife and kids.
Despite his absolute insistence on these scientific imperatives, Felix is scandalised that Dean should be cheating on Laura, who is a special case. Is it also an instance of an old white guy suspecting the worst of a young black one? This avenue is not explored.
Felix quickly takes charge of the investigation, having Dean followed, bringing Laura along on a stake-out, discussing all the details of adultery with the confidence that comes from personal experience. The trail leads us across Manhattan and back, and even to a resort in Mexico. That’s the plot. The final outcome is so predictable I began imagining a smarter ending that never eventuated.
On the Rocks is a watchable film with a few amusing scenes – notably one in which Felix charms his way out of a traffic violation. And yet, there’s an aspect of the script that feels uncomfortably smug. Felix as the all-seeing, all-knowing magus who makes magical things happen, may seem delightful to some viewers. Personally, the more I saw of him, the more he began to sound like a phoney and a bore.
We accept there is a good deal of pretence in Felix’s persona, but his ‘masterful’ image is bound up with all the privileges money can buy. When he takes Laura to see a smallish Monet in a wealthy friend’s apartment, we are supposed to appreciate his aesthetic sensitivities, but as the Impressionists are the biggest popular drawcards in the world’s art museums it hardly feels like a major feat of connoisseurship.
For Felix, art equals money equals lifestyle. The money he has made as a dealer allows him to see himself as a man of superior taste and sensibility, but he is a creature of the debased, inflated art market that has grown with the stock market. He sells overpriced pictures to the new mega-rich and struts around as if he were Kenneth Clark.
Laura and Dean are equally shallow in their own personalities and professions. It’s no simple matter to make a movie about a novelist, the head of a social media start-up, and a rich art dealer, and present them as sympathetic characters. Their problems are first world ones, their existences too indulgent and trendy. Even the small details tend to grate: a quick glimpse of one of Laura’s books translated into Italian, an Ellsworth Kelly on Felix’s wall, Dean’s boasting about how many Instagram followers he picks up every day.
We are expected to believe that although their lives might look pretty cool, these élite beings are deeply conflicted personalities who suffer from ordinary, human problems. To pull off this conjuring trick a really good script is a necessity. Whit Stillman might be a credible working model but Coppola opts for the Woody Allen end of the spectrum.
Too many conversational exchanges – especially those between Laura and Dean – are merely banal. There is even a chatty friend of Laura’s (Jenny Slate) who drones on and on about her own love life, in the manner of the neurotic bigmouths we regularly encounter in Allen’s movies. That mixture of banality and pretention is not attractive, especially when it’s framed by an unshakeable sense of New York as the centre of the universe. On the Rocks is not a love letter to the city, it’s a LUXE guide, with Bill Murray as our celebrity tour leader. The city looks great. It’s the human landscape that disappoints.
On the Rocks
Written & directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Jessica Henwick
USA, rated M, 97 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 October, 2020