Coppola: On the Rocks (2020)
Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks, is one of the coolest and most elegant in her entire career. She’s always been drawn to the sweet spot between New Wave languor and smooth jazz – Bryan Ferry appears in about half her soundtracks – but she’s never perfected it quite as seamlessly as she does here. The plot is disarmingly and alluringly simple – Rashida Jones plays Laura Keane, a New York writer who starts to suspect that her husband Dean, played by Marlon Wayans, may be having an affair. Those suspicions are only intensified when she meets up for one of her regular lunches with her jetsetting playboy father Felix, played by Bill Murray, who quickly convinces her that Dean is cheating behind her back, and makes it his mission to find evidence. Since Felix has a great deal of capital at his disposal, he’s able to hire a private investigator while also trailing Dean himself, eventually convincing Laura to join him, and folding their forensic activities into her birthday weekend, while Dean is out of the city.
Of the last wave of pre-pandemic films and television series, On the Rocks resonated with me the most, since it’s filled to the brim with vibrant New York City crowds and streets. The action seems to be taking place in the midst of summer – it’s always bright outside, and the lighting inside is uniformly cool, as if to quench and quell the escalating heat, producing a luminous dimness that makes it feel as if nightlife is never very far away, even in the middle of the day. As so often occurs in summer, bodies feel inextricably close and connected, which is perhaps why every pre-pandemic detail here feels so pointed. In one scene, Laura’s friend Vanessa, played by Jenny Slate, refers to the challenges of sheltering in place during Hurricane Sandy, while at another point we see Laura touting a bag from Strand Books, which is on the verge of foreclosure as we speak. More generally, there’s a sense of mobility and momentum that’s vanished in the wake of the pandemic – especially from Dean, who’s always travelling for work, meaning that much of his relationship with Laura occurs via SmartPhone conversations.
This sense of flow and momentum is the defining trait of On the Rocks, which is peripatetic from the outset, full of sidewalk shots featuring New Yorkers out and about, immersed in the life of the city. When Felix makes his first appearance, he embodies this same flow and momentum, styling himself as a man of the global city, but also as an irreducible New Yorker in his micro-knowledge of the Big Apple’s rhythms and oscillations. In many ways, Felix is quite an old-fashioned character, comporting himself with a suave avuncularity as he discourses at length about the differences between the sexes to anyone in his immediate vicinity. Yet Coppola is ultimately less interested in Felix’s mind than in his mannerisms – especially the nimbleness and dexterity with which he moves from situation to situation. Early on, we discover that he has a deep knowledge of ballet, and his own ladies’ man routine is also a dance – a formality, or formalism, that becomes synonymous with the ebb and flow of the film itself. Suavity, for Felix, consists of his elegance and ease of movement from one scenario to the next, which is perhaps why the film as a whole goes down so easy – like a drink on the rocks. If it weren’t so beautifully and deftly scripted, you might assume it was improvised, so smoothly does it flow, and while critics took issue with how incidental it all feels, I felt this off-the-cuff relaxation made its propulsive momentum all the more entrancing and intoxicating.
In that sense, Felix’s momentum is the real subject matter of the film – both on its own terms and in how it differs from Dean’s mobility. One of the most important elements of Felix’s smoothness is his obsession with being corporeally present – from the way he chooses his words, to the care he takes in his deportment, to his obsession with whistling (and helping Laura to whistle in turn). This heightened embodiment is a refreshing shift from the disembodied Murray who’s become the norm in recent years, and who seems closer in spirit to the digital culture that Dean espouses here. For Dean has his own mobility and momentum, which comes from his role in a major tech start-up, and his need to travel all the time for work, meaning that most of his communication with Laura either occurs via SmartPhone, or in between work appointments. Felix is emphatically corporeal in both his presence and absence, explaining his fascination with entries and exits, but Dean is never quite present or absent – and this appears to be the most suspicious thing about his actions, at least for Felix.
In other words, beyond a certain point, what makes Dean suspicious is that he’s a digital native, capable of being present and absent at the same time, which has also traditionally been one of the hallmarks of a cheating spouse. Coppola thus takes a familiar infidelity narrative and uses it to tell a broader story about style and media – as does Felix, who uses his time investigating Dean to extol his own way of being in the world, which seems to belong to an older time and media regime. Whereas Dean works in tech, Felix made his money as an art dealer, and takes his cues from cinema. Whereas Dean calls Laura from the road on her birthday, Felix takes her to his favourite restaurant, seats them at the table where Bogart proposed to Bacall, and gives her his best watch as a present, while telling her a story about how he bought it with the proceeds of his first major art sale – Willem De Kooning’s “Woman.” Between the dispersed temporality of Laura’s phone calls with her husband, and the plasticity and presence of this gorgeous watch, On the Rocks hover between two planes of being, as a cinematic and post-cinematic world sidle up against one another and question one another.
This was also the project of The Bling Ring, which juxtaposed the flat temporality of fashion blogging with the luminous vistas of Harris Savides’ Los Angeles. Yet The Bling Ring ultimately emphasises fracture, and the fleeting effervescence of the cinematic tableau that the titular burglars temporarily crafted in the homes they entered. By contrast, Felix carries that cinematic space where him wherever he goes, since, no matter the context, people and spaces just seem to compose themselves around him – especially when he’s moving. Following Dean becomes a way for Laura to lean into this cinematic momentum, which makes her New York nights with Felix feel alive with cinematic possibilities too – as if they might slide into any number of lush, lavish and languorous mise-en-scenes at a moment’s notice. Once again, there’s the same breathless sense of the nightsprawl that Savides brought to The Bling Ring, especially when Felix devolves into Dad Trivia, which is really just a way of keeping the flow going – a strategy for translating his arcanity and redundancy into forward momentum, not unlike Steve Carell and Rob Brydon’s trivia banter in Michael Winterbottom’s Trip series.
The only real disruption to this flow comes at the peak of the main chase, when Felix’s car backfires, the police get on his tail, and the camera grows choppy in response. But this just paves the way for Felix’s funniest, smoothest moment yet – not only getting out of trouble, but talking the police into giving the car a push to get him back into the flow of the city again, before Coppola cuts to the coolest jazz bar yet, and the tableau of Murray and Jones that was featured on the film’s promotional poster. As moments like this make so clear, On the Rocks is a tribute to cinematic poise and allure above all else, much as Felix’s disquisitions about men and women come down to one basic idea – that anyone can sustain allure with the right kind of cinematic poise. Coppola beautifully collapses this cinematic allure back into painterly composition in the quietest moment of the film, when Felix and Laura gaze in wonder at an original Monet. Finally, Felix breaks the silence to recall how he first saw this very painting in Paris, where he drove out with Laura’s mother to Tuileries to consummate both the painting and their love. As if drawing on that allure in her own hyper-cinematic style, Coppola cuts to Laura wandering down a Manhattan street, filtered through the same gorgeous green hues.
This cinematic poise and flow is so perfect by the end of the second act that it begs the question of whether On the Rocks needs a crisis to end, or whether it can end at all – especially since Felix’s ultimate skill is entering and exiting spaces without causing a scene. Early on, he assures Laura that he knows all the exits to the Plaza, while the Monet scene is preceded by him showing her the best way to leave a party – by walking backwards, so everyone can see your face until you vanish into the darkness. In effect, he advocates the slow fade, rather than the sudden cut, much as On the Rocks feels as if it should fade out slowly, like one of Coppola’s beloved New Wave tracks, rather than ending in any definitive way. For a moment, it looks like that might happen, as Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican resort where there is literally nothing to do except flow from one languorous tableau to the next – or continue trailing Dean, since the two activities have finally become the same thing. Felix also achieves peak flow during this sequence, performing a dreamy song for the resort clientele that collapses entries and exits into one seamless rhythm, attuned to the recurring shots of sea, sand and sky: “Do you have to make a big entrance wherever you go?” “That was an exit…”
When a crisis does emerge, then, it feels beside the point, just because the first two acts of the film are so clearly entranced by Murray’s character and presence. That first hour is effectively a continuation of A Very Murray Christmas – a total synergy of Murray and camera – identifying Felix so thoroughly with the ebb and flow of the film that the film itself kind of evaporates when Laura finally rejects him, relegating Murray back into a more recognisable deadpan mode in the process. Certainly, we do see him one last time, in a more reparative scene – and it is notable that he helps break the writer’s block that has hung over Laura for the whole film, launching her into her most productive state of flow so far. Yet the film is so enamoured with Murray’s presence that it all feels a bit inconsequential to see him wrapped into a neater morality tale, especially since, at only 96 minutes, there was so much more space and time here for those languorous New York nightlife scenes, which now feel so much more precious than Coppola could have ever predicted when shooting the film. For a brief moment, the film comes alive again when Felix appears for one last rendezvous outside Laura’s apartment, and then closes up for the final scenes – but even this fairly drab ending can’t fully take the sheen off the first two acts, one of the most joyous hours in Coppola’s entire career.
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