The wasted potential of ‘On the Rocks’
A rocky journey from start to end
On the Rocks
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Screenplay by Sofia Coppola
Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Waynes, Jenny Slate
Streaming on Apple TV+
A shallow buddy detective comedy at best and a lost jumble of genres at worst, On the Rocks would be one stone’s throw away from landing in the discounted movie bin at a local Walmart were it not for streaming services. Instead it’ll probably end up in the late night comedy section for the nights when you just need some noise to fill the silence. A sad fate for the potential this film had.
Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Waynes) are a happily married couple with two young daughters. However, creeping suspicions about a sordid affair plague Laura after her husband begins a slew of long work hours and frequent work trips with a young coworker. Her days become spent concernedly pondering if her husband is still attracted to her and trivially reorganizing her desk instead of writing her book. Laura’s 70-year-old playboy father Felix (Bill Murray) then furthers these ideas and drags a reluctant Laura into a series of investigations into Dean’s life through late night car chases and spontaneous international trips for a memorable father-daughter bonding experience.
At a glance, the premise for the film is remarkably unoriginal. A story about a couple who may or may not be dealing with extramarital affairs is one that’s been rehashed and used as a plot device too many times to count. But in On the Rocks, Dean’s possible infidelity is really quite irrelevant despite the whole film being seemingly centered around it. Laura and Dean’s rocky relationship is a catalyst for bringing Laura and her father closer together, and the film becomes less about Laura and Dean, and more about Laura and Felix. But apart from one introspective moment towards the end, there is nothing of real substance throughout the film. On the Rocks tries to balance wanting to be a fun comedy and wanting to be a thought-provoking drama, and this is its biggest flaw. It thinks it can be anything, which then detracts from everything. One second we’re given breathtaking shots of the New York cityscape in a surreal tone, and then the next second we’re dropped into what’s essentially a generic comedy situations 101 class.
The constant switches in the tone of the movie make it difficult for any of the events or characters to have any real gravitas with the audience, and instead create a movie having an identity crisis. Further along in yet another turn of tone, we receive a run-of-the-mill dramatic conversation and confrontation laced with some philosophical meaning as an attempt to make the movie have more weight. While the mixture of genres is nothing new and many films benefit from this, the execution in On the Rocks leaves much to be desired and potentially could have benefitted from a longer runtime to flesh things out.
Given the breadth of talent in the cast, the film becomes even more disappointing. That is not to say the cast themselves were mediocre, but that they deserved so much more. Instead, they were given largely one dimensional characters and forced to dive deep into a single character facet. The only variation comes from Jones’ capable performance as we see her pass through the varying stages of concern, melancholy, and frustration. On the other hand, the chemistry between Jones and Murray felt quite natural and made the film more enjoyable.
On the Rocks also marks the second reunion between Murray and Coppola after their work on Lost in Translation (2003) almost two decades ago (the first reunion being a musical comedy film in 2015), and it’s not difficult to see the similarities between the two films. Lost in Translation paid homage to the beauty of Tokyo, and On the Rocks tried to do the same with New York City. It didn’t succeed nearly as well; though the city shots were beautiful, most also felt rather generic. The city was just a setting for the film, nothing more, nothing less. It could’ve been set in San Francisco or Chicago and nothing would have been lost from the story.
In a way, On the Rocks is like a grown-up version of its predecessor — who the characters might’ve been were they older. Unlike Charlotte, the protagonist from Lost in Translation, Laura is no longer a newlywed, but she is still battling the same lack of direction and motivation in her personal life. And in that sense, On the Rocks feels like a lost opportunity for what could’ve been a great film. It didn’t have to be a direct sequel per se, but a deeper exploration of the themes present in the Lost in Translation would have made for not only a nostalgic callback but also a more mature film as well. All the pieces were there, but Coppola chose instead to make a forgettable comedy.
And maybe some of this was intentional. Much like how Laura always seems to be outshone by her father when they’re together, Coppola is best known for Lost in Translation and her own father Francis Ford Coppola. Could this have been a commentary on the struggles of living in the shadow of something or someone? Laura spends most of the movie listening to everything her father says no matter how reluctant she may be to believe him, while Felix is a man stuck in the past, unable to relinquish the manners of his youth. From this perspective, On the Rocks is a story about a father not wanting his daughter to grow up and a daughter not knowing how to be her own person separate from her father, and both needed an impetus to leave these habits.
However, no matter the intended purpose, the film ultimately struggles to stand on its own. From the one dimensional characters to the motley of directions the film was being pulled in, On the Rocks cements itself as just another movie. There’s nothing special, nothing extremely entertaining. There were many elements that could have made a truly unique film, but On the Rocks ends up being a lost opportunity for that film.