On The Rocks movie review: Sofia Coppola's poetic clink gives this film a lasting high
Sofia Coppola bathes this flawed father-daughter story with so much warmth and luminosity that one does not feel like passing judgement on the characters.
"I'll have a curry on the rocks, and a Bombay Martini for her," says Felix (Bill Murray) as he sits down for a drink at a restaurant with his married daughter Laura (Rashida Jones). She says, "Oh! Okay," surprised that her father chooses her poison before she could even look at the menu.
Towards the end of Sofia Coppola's On The Rocks, Felix invites Laura to a cruise, tempting her with the offer: "We can drink till we don't fall off the ship, what say?" Laura smiles courteously and responds, "Sounds fun! But I can't come."
In her new directorial, Sofia graphs the journey of Laura from a daughter who lets her father decide every major decision for her to the one who grows into her own woman.
Laura is married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), an entrepreneur, and has two kids. She is a writer but gets more occupied with looking after her kids once she becomes a mother. The fact that her husband is a terribly busy man does not help either. They gradually grow distant, and one day, she assumes that when Dean made an advance at her in bed, he mistook her to be someone else.
This intrigues her, and she asks her father over phone for his suggestion. He is confident that Dean is cheating on her. Though she initially dismisses the idea, she starts noticing a pattern on her father's guidance. Laura and Flex then go on a covert chase to expose Dean's adultery.
On The Rocks offers fascinating character studies of the daughter-father, beginning from Stacey Battat's costumes. Laura is routinely seen in oversized tops, loose denim jackets, and with a messy hairstyle. She is shown as a woman who has given up. But that can't be taken as a sign of weakness. She doesn't look disheveled but has consciously chosen to wear what she is comfortable with.
When her daughters say their grandfather has asked them to wear skirts so that they look like young, smart girls, she tells them they will soon be adults and should decide what they prefer to wear rather than subscribing to old-school notions of what looks good on girls. On the other hand, her father is impeccably dressed all the time, mostly in suits. Despite his age, he leaves no stones unturned, and evidently believes in the dress-to-impress mantra.
It is interesting how cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd stages Felix and Laura's conversations. When they are seated opposite each other in the restaurant scene mentioned above, the mid-close-up shot on Laura when she talks or reacts is an over-the-shoulder one, with the presence of her father looming large in every frame. Whereas on him, the mid-close-up shot is a little more zoomed into his face, and Laura does not feature in any frame. This implies while Felix has cast his shadow on Laura's decisions, his own thinking is fiercely independent of her.
Anne Ross' production design also brings to the fore the father and daughter's interpersonal dynamics. When they usually meet at fancy restaurants and late-night bars, there is an air of clinical detachment. Despite provocations from her father, Laura still holds herself back. But when they visit Mexico and are seated at a beachside bar, she is uncharacteristically forthcoming. Even Felix, who otherwise keeps his composure in check, cannot help but choke up remembering a friend. He also confesses to why he was not the ideal father and husband. As they end their conversation, they look sideways to a stunning, soothing sunset. This shows us how we have a tendency to be more open and vulnerable when we are in places away from familiarity and closer to nature.
Sofia takes all these elements and concocts a fine cocktail of keen complexity and heartwarming simplicity. But what stirs up magic is the poetic clink she delivers as a deeply introspective filmmaker. Her gaze on her characters is analytical but pragmatic, never judgmental.
Laura and Flex's relationship is governed by their shared past. He claims he felt deprived when the "light" that his wife reserved for her got diverted to their kids once they were born. Murray turns on his charm whenever required, but also treats his role of a selfish father with the stoicism it demanded.
But that takes a toll on Laura, who feels deprived of a father. She grows up to become an inherently insecure wife, who goes about her motherly chores but cannot help suspecting her marriage is "on the rocks." Jones makes Laura's pain palpable, but also does not paint her as a victim.
Laura's father leads her on in her investigation, claiming he is well-versed with "how every man thinks." He also tries to justify how her husband's alleged misadventures (and in turn, his own) are a result of anatomy, and nothing more. And that she should exert more control over him.
But buried deep inside is an insecurity of not having fulfilled his fatherly duties to Laura. He feels guilty, and thus in desperate need of reparation. He also regrets missing out on his daughter's childhood, and worries that she is not as fun as she used to be.
Sofia's insights into this relationship are inspired from that of her and her father, legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she recalls how her father explained to her why a guy that hit on her at a restaurant disappeared into thin air. "He gave me another point of view, that a (playboy) can be like air traffic control, and women are the planes that have to be managed."
Coming from a personal space, Sofa ensures the slice-of-life film retains its non-judgemental, feel-good appeal. She bathes the conversations in candescent lamp lights, lending warmth and luminosity to every frame. Sarah Flack's editing is also not razor-sharp and allows the characters to breathe. It is unobtrusive and purposeful. Silences and ambient sounds dominate the soundscape, and Phoenix's original score ups the energy only when it is most needed.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, On The Rocks would have felt rather ordinary. There is a 'twist' one can spot from miles away. But in a Sofia Coppola film, one does not wait for that twist, but for how she would treat the aftermath of that event. Her films are not supposed to be chugged like whiskey on the rocks. They are to be slowly sipped on, like wine. There is no fear of a hangover, but only the nervous excitement of turning into your most vulnerable self. What follows is a lasting happy-high.
On The Rocks will stream on Apple TV+ from 23 October.
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