Bill Murray has such an enduring nature that even when he’s playing the antagonist it’s hard not to dig on his appeal. Director Sophia Coppola takes advantage of this by posing him in On the Rocks as a believable misanthrope. He seems charming when around his grandkids but get in the car with him and he can’t wait to tell you about his dated traditionalist views to excuse irrational behaviour. He talks about women historically being property and that men are biologically engineered to cheat on their wives. He relays this info to his daughter played by Rashida Jones, unsure if her man may be cheating. She’s annoyed that he uses this excuse for his own failed marriage. She’s afraid, however, that it may be true for her relationship.
Jones’s character of Laura is a mother who feels her life is a mental mess. She has two wonderful girls and her husband Dean (Marlan Wayans) occassionally comes home to keep the house afloat. But she’s crippled with writer’s block, brought on from a number of factors including the busy schedule of her kids and the disinterest of her husband who is constantly working. Many signs start cropping up that perhaps her relationship is waiting. She’s unsure and thus taps her father Felix (Murray) to see if Dean is cheating, having been an expert on the subject of sorts. Felix’s advice is mostly the standard droll of the out-of-touch codger with arguments more based in historical bias than emotional reasoning. With a sigh and an eye-roll, she decides to take his offer of help by tracking down Dean’s whereabouts to out him as a cheater.
At this point, the film could’ve easily lost interest fast as the Murray and Jones adventures of staking out unfaithful men. And there are several scenes where it could’ve devolved into such a brainless comedy. Take for example the scene where Felix brings about a classic car to speed through the streets of New York as he and his daughter covertly chase Dean’s cab. But this is no The Fast And The Murriest because A) that’s a stupid title and B) there’s plenty of great back-and-forth to not rely on such simplistic theatrics. The many exchanges between Murray and Jones have a palpable tension and a believable somber edge to how their relationships have drifted. There are scenes where they argue in bitter debates of gender as well as quiet moments when they reflect on the past.
Another possible derailing moment comes when they tail Dean to a Mexican resort. So much could go wrong here. But when one of the first scenes features Murray delivering a subdued sweet and silly lounge number, I knew the picture was in good hands. Those familiar with Coppola’s Lost in Translation will know this moment, echoed from that previous film where Murray performs karaoke but never explodes with his full comedic energy. It’s that deadpan Murray which works so well.
Jones also deserves a lot of credit for playing off of him so well, letting that tension build from disgusted grimaces to a full-blown explosion by the end. She has a great look of weariness that is best seen during her times dropping off her kids at school and being cornered by a boring mother who can’t stop chattering. Yet she never jumps ahead to quick conclusions which plays a part in her unsure nature about her career and her husband. There’s something to root for in her beyond just finding out if her man is sleeping around.
Even though On the Rocks is written and directed by Sofia Coppola, I couldn’t help but shake this sensation of Coppola being called in for emergency support on a dying rom-com picture. This is mostly because, compared to Coppola’s previous films, this is a fairly light affair. The themes are unmistakably blunt and the characters are rather easy to read. But for being little more than a walk in the park for such an accomplished filmmaker, this picture is a pleasant experience of taking a conventional genre with an unconventional level of love.