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Photo: ‘On the Rocks’/Apple TV+
Laura, the heroine of Sofia Coppola’s new film ‘On the Rocks’ is a lonely planet. As she dizzies herself tending to the satellites in her own orbit–her two young daughters–she is increasingly torn between two gas giants high off of their own hot air. One is her husband. The other is her father. As she dances figure eights around these twin stars, it becomes apparent that she must either establish celestial harmony on her own terms or face a galactic cataclysm.
Played by Rashida Jones, Laura is a struggling novelist whose solar system is decidedly bourgeois. She has a crippling case of writer’s block, but it’s more a problem of self-esteem than survival. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is the kind of adult whose job involves constant jet-setting in the pursuit of Instagram followers–he’s living a millennial fantasy, replete with deep-pocketed clientele and an effervescent apprentice (Jessica Henwick). Their spacious SoHo apartment is decorated with stickers from the Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams campaigns, but this seems more cosmetic than ideological. A luncheon Laura attends with her grandmother looks like a scene from Martin Scorsese’s gilded-age drama The Age of Innocence. Pampered and provided for, Laura is in a bored and boring state of stasis.
Felix the Cat
Disruption occurs when Dean arrives home from a late flight, bleary-eyed from Xanax, to find Laura watching a Chris Rock stand-up bit about how marriage kills your sex life. He’s in an amorous state until Laura says his name–suddenly, he snaps out of it. Later, she finds another woman’s toiletry bag in his luggage. Seeking second opinions to assuage her suspicions, she contacts her tomcat father (Bill Murray) who instantly turns into Hercule Poirot (or for the more modern reference, Benoit Blanc). Sniffing out his son-in-law’s alleged infidelity quickly becomes a game for the cosmopolitan patriarch, an opportunity to utilize a swiss army knife of connections to concierges, private detectives, and travel agents across the globe.
Reuniting with his Lost in Translation director, Bill Murray summons every ounce of his panache to portray the impeccably named Felix. Murray’s tendency towards voicing a certain lasagna-loving cat notwithstanding, this feline denomination is perfect for highlighting the actor’s facility for utterly felicitous seduction. Felix has made peace with his animal instincts, filling his daughter’s ears with theories of how men are evolutionarily predisposed towards adultery and the objectification of women. It’s a self-serving and oversimplifying philosophy, but what complicates things is that Felix is charming enough to be convincing.
Women and Men – ‘On the Rocks’
Untenability is a central tenet of Coppola’s films, and it’s especially interesting to parse On the Rocks with that in mind. The presence of the Bernie bumper stickers in the home of the well-heeled Manhattanites provides a compass for navigating Coppola’s message here. Idealism is seductive, but perhaps not as seductive as the status quo. We can expect other people to make sacrifices in the name of revolution, but few of us are willing to compromise our own comforts. Felix is unapologetic about his own failed marriage with Laura’s mother, but he’s instantly judgmental of his son-in-law at the faintest hint of impropriety. Laura has a reflexive rejection of Felix’s chauvinistic theories, but she can’t help but wonder if his masculine mentality is the key to understanding her own marriage. Besides, she enjoys the attention she receives when her father’s protective instincts kick in.
Coppola’s film is loaded with women who are all too eager to maintain a male-driven societal equilibrium. When Laura attends one of Dean’s work parties, Coppola constructs a scene of subtle body language to show how she is an intruder in the pecking order for her husband’s work-based attention. A pair of cliquish female interns politely dismiss her, while Jessica Henwick’s Fiona fawns over Dean, the leader of their pack. In another scene, Felix convinces his young granddaughters to wear their hair long and smile to please boys. Laura attempts to correct him and tell her daughters they can wear their hair however they please, but the girls enthusiastically side with their grandfather. Laura’s best friend Vanessa (Jenny Slate), a divorcee toiling in the pursuit of a stable relationship, comes across as a cautionary tale. Vanessa is so entrenched in romantic floundering and self-love jingoism that Laura can’t get a word in. Is this Laura’s fate if she rejects her possibly errant husband?
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“It must be so nice to be you.”
There’s a certain boldness to Coppola’s willingness to explore gender dynamics in this way. Female filmmakers are often celebrated for crafting unabashedly feminist narratives with stridently progressive heroines, like Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. With On the Rocks, Coppola is more contemplative, examining how women and men continue to inherently adhere to a patriarchal society. Felix is able to so effortlessly pass through the world in part because he is an experienced elder statesman in a society he created. In perhaps the film’s most memorable example of privilege, Felix manages to charm his way out of a traffic ticket by complimenting the police officer’s eyes and invoking an insider connection to the officer’s family. In a world where many fear for their safety while interacting with police, Felix chuckles as he enlists the officers to push his misfiring convertible back into drive. It’s a moment both of exultation and distressing inequality, which Laura sardonically underlines thusly, “It must be so nice to be you.”
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Sofia Coppola seems completely willing to let Bill Murray run away with her movie. While Rashida Jones exudes Ann Perkins sensibility, Bill Murray is Bill Murray (he was on Parks and Recreation too, as the irascible Pawnee mayor seen only in his coffin). The farcical nature of Felix’s increasingly absurd investigation, while diverting, is also not without its satirical elements. A running gag in the film has Laura constantly confused for Felix’s mistress, suggesting that it’s more common these days to see a man romancing a woman half his age than it is to see a father spending time with his adult daughter. Even Felix’s attempts to help Laura are not without a dubious ulterior motive. As an art dealer, Felix romances older women in an attempt to gain access to their treasures before they die. Once beyond the age of sexual viability, women are reduced to abstraction for Felix. Like masterful paintings, they are beautiful and valuable, but also framed, frozen, and remote.
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Ultimately, the film is more of a meditation than a revelation. While Coppola does present Felix’s pontifications on gender roles with a hint of buffoonery, she ultimately seems to concede that epochs of genetic hardwiring and centuries of cultural conditioning are unlikely to be easily undone. Despite his flaws, Laura loves her father. “Remember, don’t give your heart to any boys, you’re mine until you get married,” he tells her as a child, presented in a flashback. “And then you’re still mine.”
On the Rocks is streaming on Apple TV+.
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