Sofia Coppola has confronted her share of controversy. In 2017, “The Beguiled” rightfully faced objections for Coppola’s whitewashed Civil War landscape and erasure of Black characters. The criticism sparked a larger conversation about Coppola’s corpus, which predominantly explores the wealthy and privileged stricken by incurable affluenza in predominantly white ecosystems.
Her latest work, “On the Rocks,” starring Rashida Jones and Bill Murray, marks a departure from this tradition. Coppola’s auteur elements are still present, but reimagined through a more mature, softer gaze. The film centers on Laura (Jones), a New York author and stroller-steering mother on the cusp of 40. Laura suspects her increasingly absent, workaholic husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair after their passion plateaus and she uncovers an incriminating makeup bag. Unsure what to do, Laura seeks advice from her father Felix (Murray), a rich retired gallerist and practicing playboy.
Jones and Murray elevate Coppola’s sensitive ode to father-daughter dynamics through wonderful, compelling acting. Murray may be a Coppola veteran and his character Felix may be the most interesting man in every room, but it’s Jones — the first woman of color to lead a Coppola film — who delivers a stunningly grounded, balanced performance and seamlessly moves between wry banter with Murray and sincere uncertainty about her domestic life.
The comparatively laissez-faire direction fails to support Jones’ terrific performance, however. “On the Rocks” admittedly pales to its predecessors: It’s not as lively as “Marie Antoinette” nor as immersive as “Somewhere,” nor as emotionally stirring as “Lost in Translation.” Yet, almost paradoxically, “On the Rocks” is more enjoyable for people familiar with Coppola’s filmmaking and her cinematic sensibilities. Coppola often unravels patriarchal precepts buttressing Hollywood cinema, an ambition reflected in the opening of “On the Rocks.” The first scene follows Laura on her wedding night, capering through shadowed hallways in a fairytale wedding dress; the glossy, seductive montage climaxes as she dives into a secluded pool and into Dean’s arms. The scene feels like an advertisement for couture perfume — a clever prelude for a film disillusioning the mirage of marriage and exploring what happens when happily ever after is no longer happy.
The dichotomy between the male gaze and the female gaze further unspools through Laura and Felix’s relationship. Murray deftly balances congeniality with his character’s crude offhand remarks. Throughout the film, Felix spouts uncouth history lessons, often musing about “man’s nature.” Coppola uses these moments to defamiliarize the male gaze: Instead of highlighting Murray, the camera remains on Laura, lingering on her curt nods and pursed lips at father’s problematic revisionist history. Dislodging the male gaze is a familiar frontier for Coppola, but it carries particular weight when explored between father and daughter.
One of the refreshing achievements in “On the Rocks” is the care that Coppola takes to craft conflict. Storytelling tends to highlight tension between a father and his son-in-law through a homosocial prism, reducing the daughter/wife figure to an exchangeable object between the men in her life. “On the Rocks” could have tread through these rough waters, but Coppola reworks this patriarchal structure with admirable grace. Laura remains the emotional core of the film, and with the narrative rooted in her perspective, there’s no space for Felix and Dean’s tension to spill into machismo. Rather, Felix’s involvement in his daughter’s domestic life stems from a place of love and a desire to repair their relationship.
“On the Rocks” harbors several departures from the director’s typical style, but the frustratingly safe, shallow ending steers the last act of “On the Rocks” into a shipwreck. Surprisingly saccharine, the conclusion cheapens Jones’ and Murray’s delicate work with coddling dialogue, leaving viewers with a sense that the final destination gets off at the wrong stop.
While Coppola historically celebrates femininity as a way to enjoy pleasure and consumption, “On the Rocks” mellows into a fairly safe, sober meditation on marriage, motherhood and daughterhood. The film is speckled with clever nods to Coppola’s reoccurring themes of femininity, but her lunge at maturity ultimately comes with growing pains.