By John H. Foote
(***) Now Streaming on Apple
Every time Sofia Coppola makes a film I am excited that it might be something very special, that it could be the one to bring this gifted young woman an Academy Award or Directors Guild Award for Best Director. Will she ever equal her film Lost in Translation (2003) which won her an Oscar for her superb screenplay and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Director? After bursting forth as a fine director with The Virgin Suicides (1999) she positively stunned audiences and critics with Lost in Translation, one of the finest films of the nineties, beautifully acted by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and directed with confidence and sensitivity by Coppola. Her follow up to that was the criminally under-appreciated Marie Antoinette (2006), a masterful study of the young Queen and her life in France up to the Revolution. One of the most startling images in cinema remains the Queen walking out onto the balcony overlooking the raging crowd storming Versailles and bowing to them, arms outstretched on either side, foreshadowing her execution by guillotine in the very near future. An exquisite study of materialism and, to a degree, celebrity, Coppola took risks with this film few would, using a modern song score, and the placement of a Converse running show to draw the comparison between the past and future, linking them forever together. Somewhere (2010) was a muted study of celebrity and wealth that did not quite work for me, the lead actor lacking the charisma to pull it off, and all but blown off the screen by a young Elle Fanning. The Bling Ring (2013) disappeared despite solid reviews and strong performances. I was an admirer of her remake of The Beguiled (2017), a superb period piece set during the Civil War with Colin Farrell at the mercy of a group of women who make their own rules under the strict guidance of an imperious Nicole Kidman. Her style is exquisite, patient, the camera gently probing the intimate relationships of her characters, her narrative always unique, never going quite where we might expect.
Which brings us to On the Rocks, her newest film now streaming on Apple.
Once again working with Bill Murray, her muse, Coppola has created a fine film about the bizarre relationship between a daughter, married with children who seeks the advice of her father, a wealthy horn dog, looking to jump every woman he encounters, and usually succeeds.
What is about Coppola that brings out the best in Murray? He has been very good for other filmmakers, almost great a couple of times, but with Coppola, his work is near perfect. It certainly was in Lost in Translation, and here as the rascally scamp Felix, he is a delight portraying a wealthy former art gallery owner who jumps from Paris to London back to New York just because he can. There is a mad sparkle in his eye from the first moment we see him, something that says, “I could be trouble”, which is good for us. He moves through his years in retirement eating at the finest restaurants, drinking the very best whiskey, loving the parties he attends in the art world where he enjoys a degree of fame, and seeking to bed every woman he takes an interest in, even if he is old enough to be their grandfather. Felix is shameless, flirting with ladies with old lines, saying the most cliché things but damned if he does not get away with it!! A rake, a scamp and a bit of a tramp, he is unapologetic tomcat, prowling the night life, looking for his next conquest, and there have been many.
When his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones) calls him, thinking her husband might be cheating on her, they begin a careful alliance that will see them mend their frayed relationship and build an understanding between one another. She calls Felix because she believes he will know the signs as to whether her hubby has strayed because Felix spent most of his married life cheating and covering his tracks, who would know better? What she does not expect is the regret her father feels for what he did and what it has cost him, namely watching her grow up. Believing her husband is cheating based on the very slim explanation she gives her father, they embark on a detective adventure to find out or hopefully, to find nothing. Together they discover truths about each other they did not realize.
Coppola tells the story with great warmth and humility, never choosing to give the film a hard edge. It is an interesting choice and one wonders if any part of this was based on her own relationship with her father, the great director Francis Ford Coppola, who was known to step out on his wife at the height of his fame. Today they are as close as they ever were, but there is so much intimacy here it begs the question and, given so much of her work is autobiographical (original work), it certainly has that vibe.
Both Felix and Laura feel deprived of each other in their relationship. Felix knows his cheating caused the end of his marriage to Laura’s mother, and he missed her childhood and teen years, worrying now that is not as fun as it used to be. Laura feels deeply deprived of a father, and though Felix was around, it was not every day, it was not all the time.
The performances are both superb, Murray a standout as the old dude who believes it his duty as a man to spread his seed, to try and bed every woman who so much as looks at him or the more likely, whoever he pursues. Murray’s age is finally becoming apparent, but through his voice, now much more gravelly than ever before, his eyes still twinkle with the mischief that shone in Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984). His rise to great actor began with Rushmore (1998) and climaxed working with Coppola in Lost in Translation (2003), but he has been terrific in many other films, including The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life with Steve Zissou (2004), a deeply under-appreciated film. His work here is again, superb and he is simply a joy to watch on film.
Jones is every bit as fine as Murray, finally given a role she deserves, and she runs with it. Though a respected writer with a fat advance for new book that she cannot get moving on, she is a mess of insecurities. When her husband comes home late one night after an extended trip and climbs into bed with her, she speaks to him, startling him because it is her, and from that moment on she is a mess of nerves. But does she have reasons to be worried? His assistant, a leggy beauty, goes with him on these long trips and holds his arm just a bit too often and too long. Women always know, always. Why does Laura not? The dawning of what is really going on is quite something to watch, and I wish the film was about 20 minutes longer, but alas, it is what it is.
I liked the film very much and hope Murray lands himself an Oscar nomination. Ms. Coppola, maybe, and Jones, possibly, though it is a strong year for women. Kudos to Coppola and Murray for making a chauvinist so damned likeable!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.