Movie Review: Frothy “On the Rocks” is Peak Bill Murray

on the rocks

It’s not exactly the famous cut from a bone to a satellite in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But a series of shots at the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks” (in theaters now, and opening Friday on Apple TV) is similar in spirit.

It’s the lavish wedding night of Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans), and the couple has stolen away from the festivities for a late-night dip in the resort pool. Coppola’s camera tracks over their abandoned clothes heedlessly strewn on the patio leading to the pool, a camera movement that has become so ubiquitous in romantic comedies it’s almost a parody of a parody.

But the true wit of this movement, dry as a martini, comes two shots later, when Coppola repeats it. Only this time Laura, now a harried mother of two, is retrieving toys carelessly scattered across the floor of their New York City apartment like shrapnel. One cut skips over eight to 10 years: The honeymoon is decidedly over.

In fact, Laura harbors suspicions that her husband may be straying. The startup he started up has begun growing in influence. While Laura spends her days in moth-eaten T-shirts, struggling to write a novel while getting her kids to and from school, Dean is out hobnobbing with clients alongside an attractive and fashionable colleague, Fiona (Jessica Henwick). As Laura puts it, “I’m just the buzzkill waiting to schedule things.” When Fiona’s vanity bag appears in Dean’s suitcase, Laura fears the worst—and seeks counsel from a dubious, if connected, source: her cosmopolitan bon vivant father Felix (Bill Murray), whose passion for cocktails is matched only by his ever-wandering libido.

As Felix scours his Rolodex of private eyes and hotel concierges, and enlists Laura in spy-game theatrics to catch her husband in the act, Coppola threads a tonal needle between a contemporary dissection of matrimony’s durability and a vintage madcap comedy of remarriage. There are moments of piercing accuracy that uncover unexpected truths about the human condition. But more often than not, I thought of lighter capers from the “The Thin Man” franchise to “Manhattan Murder Mystery;” an allusion to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, along with a recurring motif about whistling, seem to cement its Golden Age metacomedy.

In fact, I was taken aback by the absolute accessibility of “On the Rocks.” The film is a definite change of pace for Coppola, who has favored art-house ennui in moody masterworks like “Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere.” No such inhibitions color the effervescence of “On the Rocks”—even if a deadpan, symbolic shot of a Roomba sputtering aimlessly around Laura’s bedroom and bumping into the furniture calls to mind the toy robot scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert.”

Mostly, though, “On the Rocks” skims the surface of things, hedging so much as it wends toward its denouement that it leaves its audience nutritionally deficient, as if we’ve just consumed a low-cal parfait that doesn’t fully satisfy. And yet Coppola’s greatness as a filmmaker is never in dispute. Her formal choices are as revealing as ever, and she has given Bill Murray, after resurrecting his career 17 years ago with “Lost in Translation,” another definitive role.

Felix is a walking contradiction that no other actor could embody. Chauvinistic but worshipful of the ground on which his daughter walks, repugnant in his beliefs yet disarming in his charm, Felix is something like the sum of Murray’s filmography; he even gets to conjure his inner Nick the Lounge Singer from his “SNL” days.

He is but a supporting player in Laura’s story. He needs his own.

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