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The title of "On the Rocks," Sofia Coppola's sweet, undernourished but well-liquored new comedy, can be read two ways. At first it would seem to describe a happy Manhattan marriage that comes under threat when Laura (Rashida Jones), a writer, becomes concerned that her jet-setting entrepreneur husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair. His new company is taking off, and he's been spending a lot of hours at the office and on the road, many of them in the company of an attractive new colleague (Jessica Henwick).
Laura's suspicions are encouraged by her worldly art-dealer father, Felix (Bill Murray), who knows a thing or two about cads from personal experience and who supplies the title's other meaning by consuming a steady stream of alcoholic beverages. Much of "On the Rocks," which premiered at the New York Film Festival and will open in theaters Oct. 2, unfolds in bars and restaurants of vintage wood-paneled elegance, where Felix is invariably friendly with the staff (or just good at pretending). He drags his daughter to these classic spots, like the 21 Club and Raoul's, stuffing her with martinis and ice cream, wild anecdotes and practical wisdom, hoping to chase away her loneliness and perhaps assuage his own.
Watching them together, you might be flooded with a loneliness of your own, even if you were to tune out their conversation entirely (which you may sometimes be tempted to do). Coppola shot this picture in New York last summer, and the sights and sounds of COVID-free nightlife - the background music, the barroom chatter, the clink of plates and silverware, the enveloping shadows of Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography - are likely to induce an exquisite sense of nostalgia. So will the daytime scenes of Laura dropping off her kids, Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and Theo (Alexandra and Anna Reimer), at school and then returning by choice, not necessity, to her home office, where she's dealing with a serious case of writer's block.
In addition to being an intimate, generally lighthearted comedy of family ties and wayward eyes, then, "On the Rocks" is an accidental time capsule of pre-pandemic life, set in a New York that might have looked idyllic even if the movie had been released last year. Seen in the harsh glare of the present, the characters' problems - generational differences, marital anxieties, creative inertia - might seem both derivative and almost desirably quaint, though in a way that produces more sympathy than scorn. We've been here before, after all. And this is hardly the first Sofia Coppola movie to situate itself at a cautious remove from reality, to treat comedy, romance, fantasy and even history as a kind of bulwark against the tensions and traumas of the outside world.
To these eyes, the sense of willed isolation in Coppola's movies has always felt knowing and purposeful; to others, it's a sign of her irredeemable obliviousness. Some of her best films, notably "Marie Antoinette" and "Somewhere," have been dismissed as frivolous baubles, steeped in the unexamined privilege and commodity fetishism of a lifelong Hollywood royal. Few would deny that Coppola knows her way around the celebrity bubble, though given some of the reflexive jabs hurled her way, who could blame her for staying there? Even when she doesn't - even when she steps back into the distant past, as she did in her spare, haunting Civil War western, "The Beguiled" - she tends to get knocked for grasping (or not grasping) at subjects presumably beyond her reach.
It would be presumptuous to suggest that she's back in her comfort zone with "On the Rocks," in part because her filmmaking, whether it arises from comfort or discomfort, rarely betrays any strain. The personal dimensions of the story are obvious but unforced: While Coppola has acknowledged that the character of Felix was partly inspired by her own famous father, the director Francis Ford Coppola, the more salient reference point may be her earlier collaboration with Murray in "Lost in Translation."
In that Oscar-winning art-house favorite, Murray played Bob Harris, a jet-lagged Tokyo drifter whose most expressive quality was his quiet, sardonic reserve. Like Bob, Felix drinks a lot; unlike Bob, he's an incessant talker, an inveterate flirt, a doting grandpa and a guy with the advantage of being on his home turf. To Laura he is not just a father but a confidant and something of a double agent, someone whose own romantic indiscretions - he and her mother split up years earlier - might finally come in handy. When Laura calls him with concerns that Dean may be cheating, Felix immediately assumes the worst, in part because he has been the worst himself.
"You need to start thinking like a man," he says, and then proceeds to give her a feature-length demonstration. As he sips Bacardi, chats up the wait staff and runs into old friends and flames left and right, Felix treats Laura to a running lecture on the impossibility of monogamy and the primal, atavistic nature of human sexuality. She greets all this father-knows-best blather with exasperated eye-rolls but also a daughter's natural indulgence. As much as she wants to believe in her husband (nicely played by Wayans in a deft, close-to-the-vest performance), she can't help but go along with her dad's cynicism as well as his increasingly elaborate plans to trap Dean mid-deception.
Some caper-esque shenanigans ensue, involving a private investigator, a sporty red convertible and a sudden, impulsive trip down south. The bursts of madcap energy feel like something new in Coppola's work; she has acknowledged the "Thin Man" mysteries as an inspiration, and the '80s New York screwball of "Arthur" seems like another. But the comic engine that powers this movie is ultimately its star's merry-prankster persona. You see in Felix the deadpan anarchic streak that has made Murray a force in American comedy for decades. At the same time, the actor seems to be winking at his own reputation for off-screen mischief - the tricks, stunts and pop-up bartending gigs that have made him a kind of one-man flash mob.
"It must be very nice to be you," Laura mutters at one point, and "On the Rocks," punch-drunk in love with its star, doesn't really contradict her. It's a shame we don't get more time with some of her other, less narcissistic family members (played too briefly by Barbara Bain, Juliana Canfield and Alva Chinn), though Dad's antics are fun to watch - at least until they aren't. As Felix drags his daughter all over New York and beyond, you may start to wonder if there's anything more to him than his fabulous connections, his galling privilege and the obvious relish he takes in being played by Bill Murray. You may also find yourself wishing that Jones, though affectingly down-to-earth as ever, had been given a fully developed character to play, rather than a set of straight-man reactions: scold, shrug, sip, repeat.
'ON THE ROCKS'
Rating: R, for some language/sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Opens Oct. 2 in general release where theaters are open; available Oct. 23 on Apple+
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