Conversations about film

October 30, 2020

On the Rocks

Directed by Sofia Coppola, 2020

Jim Wilson: Dude, long time, welcome back. Since the film we first talked about here was Lost in Translation, it seems appropriate to have you back for Sofia Coppola’s newest film, again with Bill Murray, On the Rocks. Rashida Jones plays Laura, an aspiring writer and mother of two young children, whose womanizing father Felix (Murray) projects his own frayed association with marital fidelity onto the mildly suspicious behavior of Laura’s husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), which leads to a madcap misadventure from New York to Mexico.

We’re going to do something a little different with this issue of Collokino, which we’ll get to, but first, tell me your initial thoughts about the movie.

Jeff Wilson: Well hellooo, Jim, Bro, Dub! Well sure, yeah, it’s great to be back, I’ve been out lost in the wilderness on a long strange journey, but I’ve managed to find my way back, for a time at least. And hey, yeah, I saw this film last night called On the Rocks by Sofia Coppola, and thought maybe we could talk about it.

Okay, so very first impressions… It struck me as a safe, not outwardly challenging/exciting film (for Sofia). We’re watching Laura go about her daily business of taking care of her daughters, while living in NYC, as her husband puts much of his time into his new business, thus spending a lot of time with his “assistants”, which eventually leads to some thoughts of infidelity in Laura’s bored mind. Her well-to-do, charismatic, philandering father Felix, then pops back into her life and throws gas on the spark.

It’s feeling much like Lost in Translation – The Next Generation at this point. Obviously, the construction and execution of the film is quite good, being a Coppola film; we get some fun driving-around-the-city-with-music scenes, some karaoke, and most importantly some Murray humor.

“The Corsican wanted me to pull her hair…hard…but I’m just not that kind of guy.”

Yet eventually we get to understanding what the core idea/message/question Sofia is looking at in this film: her father’s generation’s view/understanding of the world and how it is perceived now. In her unique, unbiased lens style, Coppola deftly takes numerous looks into the differences of how a 60-75-year-old interacts with their surroundings/people, as opposed to 25-45-year-olds. As the film enters its second half, you (me) are hard pressed to not become endeared to Felix’s oddly philosophical, old-timey shenanigans – the uninhibited FUN of it – in juxtaposition to Laura’s unfun responsible behavior.

Jim: Oh, that line about the Corsican… I love it when Laura looks aside and asks “The Corsican?” She loves her Dad, and clearly enjoys his attention, but you can tell, at moments like that, when she can barely believe some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth.

Yeah, I think that’s a great point about Laura’s frumpiness, that Coppola is getting a good laugh at the expense of responsible, urban Millennial strivers, while laughing along with the decidedly un-PC playboy tomfoolery of Murray’s Felix.

I get the sense that Coppola is kicking back and resting on her well-deserved laurels with this one, reanimating elements of her 2003 masterpiece, and just having a ball with Bill. I suspect you have the same impression.

Jeff: Yes, I completely agree with you on Sofia’s mindset in making this film. As she herself stated she wanted to make a fun, humorous film.

But I have to say, being a 55-year-old who was raised with role models like Murray and his contemporaries, I think she is actually taking a subtly clever look at a rather important issue. How people interact with each other now as opposed to 30-40 years ago, the impact of things like MeToo, pandemics, racial injustice, and fear spreading in general, and where are the lines, when do we cross them, and which ones matter.

I absolutely loved the scene when Felix shows up in the back-firing, completely inconspicuous, vintage red Alfa Romeo to tail Laura’s husband at the restaurant, and Laura’s reaction to the multiple layers of fun idiocy it entails.  When he eventually is pulled over by the cops for running a red light, THE scene of the film unfolds. Instead of laying hands on him or just shooting him when he says he can’t turn the engine off, or else he won’t be able to start it again (ha), he proceeds to engage officer O’Callaghan with stories of knowing his father and grandfather, etc., etc., all charm boys club to the hilt. Eventually, the cops actually assist him with a push to get old red started and let him go with a weak warning. Laura’s expressions during the entire exchange tell the precious convoluted story of what is going on here, and what it looks like today, and all it would take for EVERYONE to treat each other that way…with familiarity…something in common to form a personal connection which leads to…empathy.

The initial scene in Mexico takes another look. Laura finds Felix singing in the lounge to a room full of strangers and after he finishes with a flourish she states “do you always have to make such a grand entrance?” But in Felix’s mind, I think he’s just socializing with the group in his own fun way, and the older women there don’t think it’s odd at all and they’re loving it.  Different lenses.  

So how did you see these things, my old friend? I was quite curious while watching this film what take you would have on it.

Jim: Dude, I’m learning from you. Those are all great insights. You’re really making me love this film. I think I need to watch it again.

So, let’s proceed with our plan, and watch On the Rocks again. We’ll then reconvene here and carry on with our conversation. How does that sound?

Jeff: I agree with you, Jim, that at this point maybe we should take a break to re-watch the film. It should be interesting to see what direction our feelings towards this film go. I’m interested to look closer at the chatty younger mom (Jenny Slate) and her ramblings during school drop-offs.


Jim: And we’re back. It’s been a few days and we’ve both watched On the Rocks a second time. Before we get into it, Jeff, what do you make of the film’s title? Are there any drinks on ice in the film? I can’t recall. Are there any figurative shipwrecks? Quickly, I’m curious, what do you make of the title?

Jeff: “Is that a birthmark?”

Oh, I’m sorry, are we back?

Oh yes, yes, the title. So, I was looking for it this time around and all I found was at one of Felix and Laura’s initial dinners, Felix orders himself a Cutty on the rocks, and Laura a Bombay martini. This is the only time in the film you ever hear the drinks ordered so specifically. And of course, Cutty’s emblem is, I believe, a ship on the rocks. So, there’s that. There’s one shot, when leaving Mexico, of the surf breaking on the rocks. The only real cohesive relationship I can see here is that it’s Felix that’s on the rocks. He ordered that drink, and in Mexico all of his tomfoolery was dispelled. I’m guessing it’s mainly just a good all-around title for the film.

But back to the dinners. Upon second view, I discovered that most of the meat of the film, at least from Felix’s perspective, unfurls during the numerous meal scenes. I think there is actually a great short film you could make by just splicing all of these together. It’s hilarious to watch Felix’s eyes investigating the waitresses, asking them if they’re ballet dancers, etc., and then check out Laura’s aghast expressions to his mannerisms, as opposed to those he is doing it to. And before I forget, as I did with Scarlett in Lost in Translation, I want to comment on Rashida Jones’ performance. What a spot-on casting she was. She plays the ho-hum, slightly out-of-her-element NYC mom perfectly (vintage rock/rap band t-shirts and all), with just enough umph for us to get thru the slow start. She’s great at being somewhat affluent but not princessy. Later in the film, her reactions to her dad’s antics are priceless, if understated. As much as Old Bill always tends to steal a film, I think it’s actually her that I relate this film to.

So what did you notice most on second view, brother?

Jim:  On the title, I’ve got nothing, though I doubt it’s a Cutty Sark reference. Maybe it’s obvious, and I’m totally missing it. That’s why I asked. But whatever, enough with that. 

I have a really strong feeling after a second watch that Coppola is playing with some difficult dualities, things she hasn’t entirely come to grips with. I kind of see the film as Coppola ruminating about some things about herself, how she grew up, the norms of a privileged upbringing, and her hopes that it might, maybe could, be a little more equitable, particularly for women. But I think, too, she’s laughing at herself for thinking any of it matters, because it’s all just a bunch of privileged people being gently shitty to each other.

I’m interested in how Coppola depicts Dean. He’s a hip Millennial dude, but he’s also incapable of recognizing Laura as more than someone performing a role, as a wife and mother. He says and does a number of things that are pretty clueless, like ignoring her obvious discomfort on the subject of his work colleague Fiona. In that way, he’s on par with Felix, minus the charisma. He really is a wet rag. But I also sense that Coppola is kind of shrugging at that, resigned to it, to the roles men and women perform in that kind of privileged professional world, or at best asking what can be done about it.

I am curious about your take on Vanessa, Laura’s friend who’s always trying to tell Laura stories about her struggles to maintain agency and influence over the men in her life, while the two are dropping off or picking up their kids at school. Although she’s the quintessentially chatty friend who’s always talking about herself, thus easy to disregard, I sense, too, that she’s saying stuff that’s a little too close to the bone for Laura. Your thoughts? 

Jeff: Yeah, I didn’t really want to just jump right to it but parts of this film hit me as possibly a bit autobiographical for Sofia. Though she is 49 and somewhat in between (like us) the characters in the film, I think she is looking at the dualities you mention while keeping her actual character/self out of it. Dean’s character is a…yeah, a wet rag, all wrapped up in work, decent guy, fairly non-communicative, except about how great his “company” is doing. I’m not sure Marlon Wayans was the perfect fit here. His presence is too strong for his character. 

On the other hand, Vanessa, played by Jenny Slate, is by far the best supporting role in the film. A younger woman who Laura runs into at every school day drop-off, she is in a constant state of rambling justification, incessantly droning on about her questionable sexual forays in front of a bunch of 5-year-olds. She obviously considers Laura a confidant, mainly since Laura is too polite to tell her to shut-up, though she does always eventually quietly pull away. Vanessa is Sofia’s take on the supposedly strong, independent cosmopolitan woman who is actually completely insecure and lost in the vastness of NYC. And the fact that the affair she’s been rambling about ends up being with a married family man (huge surprise, ladies) only adds to the awkwardness Laura feels in her polite listening pose. The Afternoon Delight tee-shirt she is sporting during her final reveal conversation hit me as incredibly poignant.

How do you see Laura and Felix’s relationship?  I picked up on something I felt was important, having a daughter myself.

Jim: I think your read on Vanessa is more accurate than mine, though I do still think that the public laundering of her romantic troubles stands in contrast to Laura’s private fretting about her own, though it functions only, or mostly, for comedic purposes. The “Afternoon Delight” t-shirt is a great touch, I agree, just as are so many of the props signaling hipness, status or virtue, or, as in Vanessa’s case, a frighteningly unironic lack of self-awareness.

Laura and Felix have a classic father-daughter relationship, but I won’t take up space talking about something you know much better and I, so please, tell me what you picked up on.

Jeff: Don’t mind if I do, seeing that I asked you a question and then said I’d like to answer it (cymbal crash).

Okay, so, during one of the father/daughter dinner conversations Felix references a memory of his about a nine-month-old Laura in a diaper sitting on wet muddy ground, and, as he picks her up and the diaper’s all dirty and dripping, they looked at each other and laughed. Felix tells Laura “this was when I first saw you as a person”. This in itself is a wonderful memory of a funny moment shared with his young child. But because of some internal workings of the father/daughter relationship, it also tends to turn into a defining, over-enduring principal of their relationship, especially for the father. You know I’m not actually Socrates, or even Confucius, but I think fathers are incredibly challenged by and fearful of how to relate to a daughter, so they grasp at something sweet and easy like this moment and then base their relationship on it…forever. So, Felix will always see Laura as someone who will get him and they can have laughs about things in an unsaid way. When Laura finally begins to not laugh, and recoils on him, he is dumbfounded, and flatly states, “what happened to you….you used to be fun?”, which all ties into Laura’s whole forgetting how to whistle (have fun) after she had kids statement, and Felix’s sublimely hilarious “I can’t hear women’s voices anymore…’s the pitch”.  I have personally battled quite hard to get past over-referencing those moments that my brilliant daughter Jessica and I had, so as to try to form a more substantive relationship. It is not easy. I think it is this dynamic that I will take away with me and remember from this film.

Jim: That’s awesome, Jeff. What’s better than when a film has such a powerful personal meaning? I’m sincerely moved by that, and now understand that moment in the film in a way I couldn’t have on my own. Thanks for that insight.

Though it’s not a personal connection, there is something I noticed this time around that made the film really click for me. There are two key moments, one between Laura and Felix, and the other between Laura and Dean, that are two sides of the same thematic coin, so to speak.

First, when Laura and her Dad are in Mexico, they’re seated at an outdoor table, and Laura is asking him about an affair he had with a woman named Holly, when she and her sister were little. She asks Felix if the affair was worth it, since he didn’t stay with Holly, and it put her Mom, her sister and herself through hell.Felix considers this for a moment, then says “It was heartbreaking…for everyone.”

The second incident occurs near the very end, after Laura returns from Mexico, with her tail between her legs, and Dean asks her to come outside and talk. There, he asks her why she didn’t ask him about her suspicions regarding Fiona, essentially placing the responsibility on her, and then proceeds with a whinny plea that she understand his time spent with work was to impress her (bullshit) and to support their daughters (cowardly).

In both cases, the men evade any responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The damage that Felix wrought on his wife and children wasn’t his fault, he contends, but something that they all suffered, as if it were a natural disaster – something no one could have prevented. Then the emotional neglect that Dean has wrought on Laura by his insensitive disregard for her obvious discomfort with Fiona’s prominent position in his life is thoroughly dismissed as an irrational reaction to what he must do to serve her and their kids. In both cases, it’s the women and the girls who must nobly suffer for the unavoidable consequences of the men’s selfishness. Coppola’s message is clear. It’s a man’s world, and too often women forfeit their will to push back against it.

Not nearly as touching as your takeaway, but certainly powerful. I know I tend to press the feminist view on this, while you prefer the fatherly gaze, but I think we can both agree that from a film that, at first glance, feels like a lighthearted comedy, Sofia Coppola submits with this another underhanded stroke of genius. So, on that note, compare, or contrast, your own first and second viewings of On the Rocks. What changed about it from one watch to the next?

Jeff: That’s a great takeaway, Jim. I think I was unconsciously aware of it, but not quite able to attach it all. Seems women are always left to do the heavy emotional, communicative lifting, seeing that men are always busy doing everything but that. A few understanding words from Dean, and a little physical restraint from Felix, and it is all much different, but alas.

To your final question, on the surface I’d say just a deeper general understanding of Laura and Felix’s relationship and the underpinnings of Felix’s humorous philosophical yarns. I also noticed a lot more of the meticulous background items Coppola employs in the film. The t-shirts, handbags, items on her study shelves and, foremost, the enormous red-splattered couch she’s sitting on at a wealthy NYC art aficionado’s home.

But….it did strike me during the final scene between Laura and Felix that I realized that all of Felix’s “easy, just go with your whims at the moment” decisions he has made throughout his adult life, even though fun at the time, have left him with very little of substance entering the last stanza of his life and it is the residue of that fact that sent him poking into Laura’s affairs to begin with. Through his daughter, he’s grasping for something that has always eluded him.

Though I don’t think this will go down as one of my favorite Sofia films cinematically, it certainly takes me where all her films tend to: somewhere extremely interesting and completely unexpected.

Great talk, Jim, thanks again for having me on Collokino. Keep up with those English lessons, you’ll get your head around it someday.

Madge! ……where the hell are my pants? And my mask!

Jim: Like always, my brother, your presence is as outsized as your perceptions are keen. Thanks for doing this.

And finally, next time on Collokino, my regular guest Michael Clawson returns for a spirited discussion about Olivier Assayas’s 2008 family drama Summer Hours. Bye! And please, please, please – you Americans – vote.