If you’ve seen most of Sofia Coppola’s films it quickly becomes apparent that she tends to build the framework of her stories around relationships – but more than that, she builds uncertainty around it all – we never quite know where the characters will end up and this is perhaps the core element of her storytelling. From The Virgin Suicides to Lost in Translation; just when you think you’ve got it figured out, reality strikes. To put things plainly, Sofia Coppola’s storytelling trademark is that the story never pans out the way you think it will – with all of that said, On the Rocks appears to be somewhat of an exception here. I say this because On the Rocks was wrapped up nice and simple – there was no gut wrenching feeling, the feeling that you’ll never quite know what could have been, any sense of loss, uncertainty, or itching questions. Who knew that the absence of such themes would ever feel… not good? That’s not to imply that all of Sophia’s films require this to be successful, but it feels as though she built On the Rocks with her trademark framework in mind and for whatever reason, it just isn’t here.
If you’ve seen Lost in Translation it’s hard to ignore the similarities, on the surface both films entail a man wandering around a big city with a younger female counterpart — in this case a distant but well-meaning father named Felix (Bill Murray) and his uncertain daughter named Laura (Rashida Jones) as they scurry around the city to uncover if her husband is being unfaithful to her. As mentioned, On the Rocks certainly has Sophia’s trademark film structure but it’s clear that it isn’t targeting the same region of pathos that her films typically do. This is a much more binary and by-the-numbers type of film. It is more concrete and assured with itself – it has an ending that is firm and hopeful; a polar opposite to Lost in Translation — and about as out of the stratosphere from The Virgin Suicides as one could get.
Bill Murray and Rashida Jones do admirable jobs here as the father and daughter pairing; their relationship seems built on a sort of mutual understanding that they are emotionally very similar people but philosophically disagree with each others outlooks on life. Felix has a relaxed and subdued personality, with wit and snark being his primary weapons of engagement in everyday conversation — Coppola brilliantly juxtaposes Felix’s laid back persona with Laura’s tense and anxiety-ridden state of being. It truly is the dialogue and character interactions that make this film into something more than just a diluted version of Lost in Translation. Coppola, Murray, and Jones all work together in making the characters the central piece within this film.
DoP Philippe Le Sourd collaborates with Coppola again, after Beguiled, crafting a similar aesthetic taking place in downtown New York and Mexico. While the film is not bursting with picturesque, grandiose shots – there is an attention to detail in framing and a sense of tenderness to each shot. The visual aesthetic that this film achieves is elegance, or specifically, beautifully simple.
The true beauty of On the Rocks is capturing the essence of New York from the rapid pace to the culture of the city. While Le Sourd lenses New York fantastically, it is the small details from the production design that make New York feel more real. The sets from the main apartment, to the streets and to restaurants or bars – the atmosphere of New York is brought to life. Although there is a lack of musical score in On the Rocks, it does balance its musical pieces from an upbeat jazz beat to a sad piano riff which is a perfect addition to the scenes they are played in.
This is one of Sofia’s more upbeat narratives and as a result doesn’t quite achieve the hard liquor storytelling its name suggests. There’s reason to believe that perhaps Sophia’s strengths lie in tugging at the lonely strings that we all have in us — she’s great at that, making a lonely soul feel comfort in the idea that they’re not truly alone in their misery. So much of this film felt as though there were complexities that Sophia wanted to cover but they never quite reached maturity, instead we’re given an almost rom-com styled conclusion and almost nothing of substance to lament on. This was a serviceable film from Coppola but it edges toward feeling like a regression of her usual style.