When it comes to cinema, bigger isn’t always better. In fact sometimes something very simple can be the best. Sure big explosions and car chases are fun, but nothing works quite as well as a simple film that is just easy to sit back and enjoy. Filmmaker Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) has been making those kinds of films for over twenty-years now and to be really honest should be included as one of the finest directors in Hollywood at the moment. A quick scan over her career has reveals a number of cult classics like Lost In Translation and The Bling Ring while her last film, The Beguiled, I felt was one of the most under-rated films of 2017.
Now Coppola returns with the simplistic but deeply captivating On The Rocks – a film that instinctly feels more French or Italian than it does American… and I mean that with the very best of intentions. Yes, On The Rocks is a reminder of just how good American cinema can be when in the hands of someone as talented as Coppola and isn’t just trying to fit another movie into a franchise or launch the career of the latest ‘it’ actor or actress.
Set in modern day New York On The Rocks finds successful writer and busy mother, Laura (Rashida Jones – The Social Network), in a quandary. On one hand she feels under-valued in her marriage to her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans – White Chicks), as his work takes him to exotic destinations and fancy restaurants while she stays home to be ‘mom’, yet she doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t want to rock the boat.
The tension inside her though rises when she becomes suspicious that he may be having an affair with his leggy colleague. Not sure what to do she asks her father, a womanising Art Dealer named Felix (Bill Murray – Moonrise Kingdom) for advice – after all with the number of affairs that he has had he should be an expert on what to look for.
Coppola’s plot does seem simple enough but she does something absolutely magical with it and the result is something beautiful. She uses New York as her canvas brilliantly well and brings a wit to her characters that is normally reserved for one of my favourite filmmakers – the legendary Woody Allen. Through sheer screenwriting brilliance, that will leave any budding screenwriter jealous, Coppola weaves in themes including juggling motherhood with working and how to deal with the dilemma of confronting a cheating partner all while keeping the audience on the edge of their seat as they try to figure out if Dean is cheating or will discover Laura and Felix spying on him.
Perhaps the real genius of this screenplay though is bringing in the amazing storyline of a daughter bonding with her father for the first time in years while they both play ‘detective’. It is obvious that in early scenes that Laura only sees him as an adulterous traitor but as she spends time with him that clearly changes as she really talks to him and finds out his side of the story. That plot also allows Murray to deliver one of his best acting performances in years. At times this storyline makes you feel like you are watching a buddy-cop movie without the badges as Laura and Felix do their own detective work and it is those scenes that make up most of the film’s most magical and memorable moments.
Back to the Allen-esque dialogue and characters though. This was not something that you would normally expect from Coppola. Here she brings a character to screen that most filmmakers would have just prevented as a prick. Instead somehow Coppola works her magic and makes Felix a likable character, something that is only enhanced by a brilliant performance by Murray who shines in every scene with Jones, and together the pair create something memorable. That scene where Felix is pulled over by the cops shows Coppola’s screenwriting is now some of the best in the world as it delivers a barrage of quick-witted humour
Suspenseful, quirky but most importantly full of heart On The Rocks is one of those films that that you know you will return to over and over when you need a comfort film. It is simple but it is American cinema at its best.