From the earliest days of her directorial career, Sofia Coppola has focused mainly on rich people problems. And why shouldn’t she? Her name is Coppola, synonymous with inherited power in the entertainment industry, where 40-50% of our famous people seem to be the descendants of other famous people these days (even if most don’t wear their lineage as conspicuously as she does).
Besides writing what she knows (and surely it’s better she dissect her own milieu than do the whole sadness porn/poverty tourism thing) there’s an obvious draw to rich-people-problems narratives, as perhaps best exemplified by Succession: rich characters simply have the means to get weirder. What’s better than watching a macabre squabble over the levers of power?
Yet in Sofia Coppola’s latest, starring Rashida Jones on a quest to uncover her husband’s affairs with the help of her womanizing playboy father played by Bill Murray, rich people paint themselves into whimsical situations, in which they act… mostly level-headedly. (*Yawn*). Their wealth manifests mostly as tasteful window dressing and the ability to surmount normal barriers to spouse stalking. Stalking that, while whimsical and mostly charming in a Bill-Murray-making-conversation kind of way, uncovers nary a Nazi orgy or Satanic bunga bunga party. What kind of dull-ass rich people are these? Bore on the floor, I say.
Coppola seems to want it both ways. Laura (Rashida Jones) lives in a tastefully-appointed New York apartment with her two young kids, with a husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) who’s some kind of techy mover and shaker. He brags about reaching 500K followers to his unnamed company’s social media account, and about working with A24 — a tacky name drop of On The Rocks‘ own distributor, though admittedly an accurate jab at NYC media culture. Laura, meanwhile, is some kind of writer, established enough to have her own office to write in, complete with a big window (eat your heart out, Virginia Woolf), though naturally she’s in the midst of a bout of writer’s block. “I’m never going to sell a book before I’ve written it again,” she sighs to a friend over the phone. Girlfriend, tell me about it. Nothing worse than getting paid for not working.
The door to Laura and Dean’s apartment has Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams stickers on the inside, and what to make of these? In the absence of any other kind of even mildly political statements or juxtapositions in the movie, they seem little more than a filmmaker’s attempt to build rapport with her audience. How do you do, fellow progressives?
Coppola is on surer footing in her depiction of hetero-monogamy, clearly the real reason we’re here. She opens with Laura catching a clip of an old Chris Rock bit. “If you like f*ckin’, don’t get married. Shit, I haven’t f*cked in seven years. I’ve had intercourse…”
In a way, the bit is a more succinct and pointed version of the entire movie that follows. One night, Dean (as much as I’ve always thought of Marlon as the least funny Wayans brother I enjoy his brief dramatic roles) starts to initiate foreplay with Laura while half asleep. Oddly, he seems to react with surprise and disappointment when he realizes it’s her. This incident, combined with Dean spending so much time at work (and traveling with a young new colleague) are enough for Laura to suspect that Dean is cheating. When she confides in her wealthy art dealer father, Felix (Bill Murray) who has his own driver and a collection of tasteful scarves, he’s only too happy to assist and advise Laura in her detective work. “You gotta get ahead of this,” he counsels, arguing that it’s better to catch in the act than confront.
Much of the ensuing movie consists of Rashida Jones and Bill Murray doing quirky detective work at resorts, in the cockpit of convertibles, and at weird house parties for old rich art collectors, as Murray’s character flirts with every woman he sees and explains why men are biologically incapable of monogamy. Murray is enjoyable as always, playing a charismatic incorrigible in the classic Murray mold. Jones is adequate, given a much less fun character to work with.
Laura’s father’s womanizing and general views on biological determinism are meant to deepen the character drama unfolding around them, but mostly they function as a reductive explanation. Of course the woman who was raised by an ogler like Bill Murray has married a man she can’t trust. Of course the woman whose parents split up over infidelity has infidelity issues. The mystery seems to solve itself. Why are we here again?
Narratively, On The Rocks is a bit like Lost In Translation with an Elektra complex (well, more of an Elektra complex, anyway). Most of the fun comes from watching Jones and Murray bounce from posh restaurant to sumptuous loft in their Quixotic quest to catch Dean in the act. Murray charms and there are times it gets enjoyably weird, but mostly it lacks the truly peculiar situations and sexual tension that made Lost In Translation sing (which is to say, people actually misbehaved in it). On The Rocks is enjoyable enough while it lasts, with likeable characters and mildly funny dialogue, but without some kind of reveal or reversal or perversion it feels a bit like Lost In Translation with the volume turned down.
Back in the early aughts, Entourage promised us a peek behind the curtain of fame and fortune, only for us to discover that rich people’s drama was apparently just a duller, lower-stakes version of our own (Will Vince do the movie? Will E finally make up with Sloan?). On The Rocks is cleverer than that, with much better acting and nicer sets, but they both end up raising the same existential question: if rich characters can’t even be bothered to be debauched or perverse, what good are they?