On The Rocks

Year: 2020
Production Co: A24
Studio: Apple
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate

What is it that generates and cements the pacing and tone of a film as it appears to the viewer on screen? The working style of the director? The amount of time they have to shoot principal photography and the resultant sense of urgency (or not) of the crew? The literal speed the actors use to talk? We have behind the scenes mythologies from across the film firmament of where the emotional state of those behind the cameras matched what came out. The sweaty, chaotic and crushing stress of Apocalypse Now is the most famous example.

To the extent the mood on set affects the milieu of the film, the company behind On the Rocks must have been having a very breezy time of it. Although the premise had a lot of potential and the leads are very experienced the whole thing was very dry and flat, almost no chemistry in the principal relationship of Laura (Rashida Jones) and her father Felix (Bill Murray).

She's a young, active wife and mother in New York City whose husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is working on a promising start-up that needs a lot of attention and travel, leaving Laura to fend for herself and their toddler and preteen. She's feeling a bit neglected anyway but then when suspicious signs mount up – a woman's toiletry bag in her husband's luggage, the adoring attention of one of his co-workers (who seems much more sexually noticeable than Laura feels), she starts to worry he's cheating on her.

Then her Dad Felix shows up. He's a wealthy art dealer, loves life, loves fine things and restaurants, and they have a warm enough relationship despite her longstanding resentment at his constant philandering. But when she opens up enough to tell him what she's noticed and how worried she is about it, Felix is convinced – he knows what men are like and Dean is definitely having an affair.

So ensues a (fairly soft) game of cat and mouse among the clubs, restaurants and bars of the city as Felix sets about having Dean followed to catch him out. The time they spend together on the quest gives them the chance to reconnect and understand each other a bit, something Laura's never apparently done because of his long absences, and that's where the potential for warmth and comedy lies.

Unfortunately it just never gets above a low simmer. There are no outright laughs and not much dramatic urgency. Maybe it would have worked better with Scarlett Johansson in the title role - what she and Murray shared in Lost in Translation had more of a sense of gentle, lovable life in it.

Here everyone just seems tired and disinterested. Like another recent watch (Stan and Ollie) there's just no dramatic heat – in both cases the pivotal argument where the lifetime of frustrations and resentment bursts forth comes out of nowhere and feels like someone complaining about their cup of coffee not being hot enough.

But Coppola couldn't stage a bad looking movie if she tried and she puts her love of an old world kind of design, fashion and locations (I remember lots of mahogany-wooded restaurant interiors) in every frame. It's very gilded and sumptuous, it's just all so inert.

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