It isn’t surprising how effortlessly Bill Murray takes possession of Sofia Coppola’s gently comic “On the Rocks” — though this hijacking may be more of a sly directorial surrender. Casting Murray is a surefire way to win over an audience. It also means yielding at least part of the movie to him, which is what happens here. He plays a bigger-than-life sybarite whose daughter enlists him to help with her marital woes. If that sounds like a dubious idea for a grown child, it’s also a playful conceptual gambit for a director whose father, Francis Ford Coppola, casts his own long shadow.
Murray plays Felix, a retired gallerist and full-time bon vivant who’s done ostentatiously well for himself, with a vintage Alfa Romeo in the garage and an Ellsworth Kelly on the mantel. His daughter Laura (Rashida Jones, yet another child of a legendary father) is a writer who’s struggling to put words on paper while caring for her two young girls. Her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), always seems to be perfunctorily kissing Laura hello or goodbye on his way out the door (to run his generic start-up), leaving her in the soft domestic chaos that envelops her. She may be the heroine of this story, but she isn’t the center of her universe.
The plot hinges on Laura’s not-unreasonable fear that Dean is no longer interested in her and may be having an affair. All the familiar signs seem to be there, including his business trips and long work hours that often find Laura home with the children. Coppola sketches in Laura’s world and its loneliness (ripe terrain for dark thoughts) early and starkly when Dean abruptly pulls away from her embrace one night. The next morning, as Laura tends to the kids, and Dean hurries to leave for work, they move around their kitchen with well-rehearsed choreography. The domestic cacophony may be reassuring, but the coarsening of intimacy is palpable.
Coppola’s minimalism can be frustratingly rather than productively diffuse, but her aesthetic reserve suits this story and the diffidence of her heroine. Laura is appealing — or rather Jones is — and you’re drawn to her just by virtue of her being the lead. Even so it’s instructive that the first voice you hear in the movie is Felix’s. “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys,” he says in voice-over, right after the American Zoetrope credit appears and before the first image materializes. “You’re mine until you get married,” Felix continues, “then you’re still mine.” A girlish voice laughs and adds an incredulous “OK, Dad.” And then Chet Baker starts singing.
The first image in the movie is of a sumptuous spray of wedding flowers on a table that the camera glides over. It keeps going, passing over a wine glass and a pair of clasped hands before landing on a close-up of the newly married Laura and Dean. Seated at opposite ends of the frame, they are bewitching. Yet if they were any farther apart, they wouldn’t be in the same shot. Within seconds, they have filled the space between them with shy looks and frisky smiles, and then they’re off, running down one of those vertiginous, slightly ominous spiral staircases that filmmakers like to brandish as a warning. You’re left to wonder if they have ever truly closed that divide.
By the time the movie kicks in, the fairy tale is over, and Laura is tapping Felix for advice, though asking a serially unfaithful father for marital counsel constitutes a kind of magical thinking. Coppola never explains why Laura asks him to help, though his love is its own justification as well as a refuge. And Murray’s characteristically easygoing delivery and shambolic presence radiate enough goodwill that you go along with it. Murray wears his roles lightly, so you always feel that you’re getting some version of the actor himself, the comic legend (funny, dry, unknowable), which usefully softens Felix’s edges. Laura may remember his sins, but they no longer cut.
Jones has a narrow range, but her face, with its sharp angles and pensive eyes, was made to get lost in, and she’s appealingly down to earth, the actor as best friend. When she looks pained, you want to help, too. Again and again, Coppola visually isolates Laura, often in dark rooms, inviting us to look at her, yes, but also to wonder: What does she see? What does she think? For much of the movie, she seems like a spectator in her own life. She rides along, she goes along. In the past, Coppola’s embrace of ambiguity could feel like a dodge, a way of evading meaning. But in “On the Rocks,” a wistful and lovely story about finally coming of age, there’s nothing ambiguous about how she makes us see a woman too long lost in life’s shadow.
On the Rocks
Rated R for language, which is a ridiculous, Puritanical call. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In select theaters, and on Apple TV Plus starting Oct. 23. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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