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Review: On The Rocks

October 2, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

While we hear his voice on the phone beforehand, Bill Murray doesn’t actually show up onscreen until nearly twenty minutes into On The Rocks, his latest collaboration with writer/director Sofia Coppola. But there’s no arguing that his presence is the main selling point of the film.

And Coppola knows this, which is why she gives Mr. Murray such a memorable onscreen entrance. His car pulls up to the curb, and the music crescendos as his window rolls down, revealing his face. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and the screen lights up when it finally happens.

Of course, Coppola and Murray famously first teamed up together in 2003 on Lost in Translation, for which she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and he received the first and (so far) only Oscar nomination of his career. The role represented a powerful dramatic turn for Murray, and he was heavily favourited to win, only to lose the Best Actor trophy to Sean Penn on the night itself.

The filmmaker and star already reunited in 2015 for their entirely wonderful Netflix holiday special A Very Murray Christmas, but this is their first movie together since Lost in Translation, and that film’s legacy obviously looms large over this one. A co-production between Apple and indie powerhouse A24, that is being released in theatres before settling into its permanent home on Apple’s streaming service in a few weeks, On The Rocks is a delightful hangout movie set in New York that gives Murray the perfect showcase to just be his ever charming self. It’s effervescent.

Murray plays Felix, the father to Laura (Rashida Jones), a mother of two living in New York City. When Laura begins to suspect that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), who is always travelling for work with his modelesque young assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick), might be cheating on her, her father gets wind of her suspicions and decides to take matters into his own hands. Felix, himself a longtime philanderer who claims to know the ways of the male mind and can’t speak to a woman without flirting, starts spying on Dean, dragging his daughter along for the ride.

Felix, the sort of older gentleman who authoritatively but charmingly shares his theories about the differences between men and women, convinces Laura that she needs to find proof of her husband’s impropriety for her own peace of mind, and they start trailing Dean on his nights out. This all could have devolved into a series of sitcom-style showdowns, and it almost does at a few points, but Coppola’s film is ultimately much smarter and more mature than that. The biggest dramatic moments here are instead built around characters talking to each other, and having honest, heart-to-heart conversations.

A lot of the film simply allows us to hang out with Murray and Jones, including a wild night spend driving around New York City in a red convertible that keeps backfiring, and it’s as delightful as it sounds. Felix, an art dealer by trade, is a man about town who enjoys the finer things in life. The role allows Murray to whistle, break into song, sip cocktails, and genuinely enjoy himself, and those of us who never tire of his onscreen (and offscreen) persona will have a great time watching him here.

But Coppola’s screenplay also has a lot more on its mind when it comes to ideas about fatherhood and motherhood, and how the steady routines that we fall into in our lives can be stifling but also sort of comforting. What Laura really wants is to be desired again, and as much as her father is trying to find proof of her husband’s infidelity, he is also trying to show her what she deserves and how her husband should be treating her. The film’s central mystery of whether or not Dean is really cheating is also quite well handled by Coppola. We are given enough clues to be sure that he is, but also enough hints that Laura and Felix could also just be projecting.

No, On The Rocks doesn’t have quite the same weight to it as Lost in Translation, which was a film about the possibility of brief encounters that captured the feeling of loneliness in such a tangible way that it remains hard to watch without feeling a great deal of heartache. But that’s okay. It’s a different sort of film, about a different stage in life. There is a sense of familiarity to it, sure, but this familiarity is actually quite comforting.

With On The Rocks, Coppola has crafted a charming and entirely delightful film, but she also still understands perhaps better than anyone the great pathos that can be drawn from a closeup on Murray’s face. The film doesn’t shy away from more melancholic moments, and actually becomes quite poignant at the end, including a dramatic scene between Murray and Jones that really showcases the skillfully drawn nature of their performances.

I’m a huge fan of Murray, and I like Jones a lot, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. And if you have ever dreamed about hanging out in New York with Bill Murray and sharing drinks at Bemelmans Bar, this movie is for you.

On The Rocks is being released today in select theatres across Canada, before being released on Apple TV+ on October 23rd.

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