On the Rocks (2021)

Trust. Communication. Bill Murray.

Laura and Dean are a married couple struggling with life – professional, personal and family. The film begins with their romantic wedding and immediately shifts to a scene a few years later that shows how challenging it is to maintain that hot passion. Their lives are busy with young kids, a start-up business and and writing a book. Director/screenwriter Sophia Coppola includes a clip of comedian Chris Rock in concert, that Laura is watching on TV by herself, talking about the marital difference between intercourse and fucking. The point is rather obvious.

Dean and Laura, talking but not communicating.

Dean (Marlon Wayans) returns home from a business trip later that same night and begins kissing Laura (Rashida Jones) passionately, then suddenly stops when he hears Laura’s voice. She is confused, and disappointed, by his reaction. Did he think she was someone else?

Father and daughter.

Enter Laura’s father Felix (Bill Murray), who introduces the notion that Dean might be having an affair. Felix is a very successful art dealer, who left Laura’s mother many years ago, and now enjoys life to the fullest, although he seems to regret the distance and lack of emotional connection with Laura. Felix can enter any room and charm every person in it, although he lacks depth beneath the veneer, and Laura is painfully aware of it.

Laura is at the center of the film, this is her story. She is tending to two young children while maintaining the household and trying to write a book. She has obviously put her own career on hold to raise her family. She doesn’t seem to resent this sacrifice, but it is a big contrast with her husband and father’s careers.

Laura struggles to make progress on her book.

At a party for her husband’s work, Laura feels out of place and her suspicion grows of Dean’s relationship with a co-worker. Director Coppola sprinkles the scene with examples of Laura’s life and Dean’s world askew, it is almost painful to watch this disconnect that Dean is oblivious to.

Dean is reveling in his new company’s success, while Laura begins to doubt the state of her marriage. You wonder how two people can seem so far apart. Dean’s explanations seem truthful and logical when Laura asks, but she never says what’s really on her mind. Even when they talk, they are not really communicating, and Dean is clueless to Laura’s discomfort.

Felix hires a detective to dig into Dean’s life. He is concerned about Laura, but also uses their sleuthing to close the distance with his daughter. Father and daughter are fun to watch together, Murray makes Felix a lovable, yet flawed rascal, a man versed on the basic anthropological history of men-women relationships, down to their mating rituals, but misses the spiritual connection. Felix has a special understanding of Laura’s suspicions of Dean, as they mirror the faults in Felix’s life.

Coppola keeps Laura on the outside in the film, never quite fitting into the social conventions around her. As an example, he presents Laura as underdressed in multiple scenes, preferring her more casual, rather than formal response. Jones brings a low-key, earthiness to the role, who isn’t impressed by the glamour and economics of success. Dean’s birthday present to Laura is practical, a snapshot of her life.

Coppola and Murray worked together on A Very Murray Christmas and Lost in Translation. Coppola writes great parts for Murray, exemplifying his sardonic humor and charming nature. She makes Murray both sad and delightful at the same time, boisterous yet mannered, jousting but disarming – full of contrasts. Murray will steal every scene. He is particularly good playing characters where he is this flawed, mystical sayer of truths, whether they are truths or deeply piled bullshit.

If you enjoyed Jones in Parks and Recreation, Laura is somewhat like the character of Ann from that show. Laura is burdened, but dependable, not able to clearly express her needs. Felix leads her to Mexico where Dean has gone on a business trip. Felix is in his element, entertaining other travelers with songs in a cantina, and impressing impressionable women. Laura is wound tight in her conflicted emotions, wanting to find out if her marriage is falling apart.

I will not reveal the ending, see for yourself. As I was watching this, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. Coppola has a light tone like Allen, and her films are character-driven, episodic stories.

The film provides numerous lessons here on the important of relationships in general. Talking is not enough, listening and understanding are critical to preventing misunderstandings. It is easy to take a thread of information and weave a false notion. People do not always say what they mean because it is hard, but it’s harder to deconstruct a fractured relationship from a misunderstanding.


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