On the Rocks

A plush Manhattan apartment. Dean returns from a business trip to his wife Laura and their two kids. You get the sense that Dean goes on a lot of business trips. Although Dean Is full of jetlag and Xanax, the couple takes the opportunity for a romantic fumble. Yet when Laura speaks, Dean reacts as if he’s expecting to hear from someone else.

Later, when Laura is emptying Dean’s suitcase, she finds a bag of women’s cosmetics. Dean swears that it belongs to Fiona, who he works with and didn’t have the space in her own baggage. Laura is not feeling great about herself at the moment – she’s a writer with writer’s block – so she starts to convince herself that her husband is having an affair.

Enter Laura’s dad, Felix, in a chauffered car. Felix is a retired art dealer and still active sexist bigot, albeit one with Bill Murray’s charm. He tells his daughter that of course Dean is having an affair because that is how men are genetically programmed to behave. Before long, Felix and Laura are following Dean round town and Felix is tracking Dean’s bank payments.

On the Rocks has been lauded by critics who were excited at the reunion of Murray with director Sofia Coppola 17 years after Lost in Translation. Well, a lot can happen in 17 years. After LiT and its admirable predecessor The Virgin Suicides, Coppola has made some missable films (well, I missed most of them), plus Somewhere, which was loved by some critics, but I found to be self-indulgent and entirely superficial.

Nonetheless, I was honestly looking forward to this – Bill Murray can never get it wrong, can he? Well, here’s the problem. Murray is incomparable when playing an affable everyman – the person who we’d love to be. But Felix is not very nice at all. Sure, Laura sometimes gets frustrated by the way he brought her up, but because he’s played by Bill Murray, Felix gets something of a free ride.

None more so than in a key scene. Felix and Laura are speeding through Manhattan in Felix’s flashy sports car in pursuit of Dean. They are pulled up by a pair of policemen. But Felix sees their name tags, tells them that he knows their fathers and doesn’t just get them let off – the policemen help push his car when it won’t start. I think we’re supposed to be impressed by this.

This is not just white privilege. It is something much more insidious and deeply entrenched in society – rich person’s privilege. This may well be the scene that persuaded many critics to see the film as being about people with whom they can identify. To me it had the absolutely opposite effect. This feeling was intensified when for incomprehensible reasons of Plot, Felix and Laura need to go to a Mexican resort, but it’s ok, one of his friends owns a neighbouring villa.

If Murray’s character doesn’t come close to most of his previous roles, Laura is just dull. There is what I guess is a running joke that other mothers come to her with tedious tales about their relationship problems. Well, a story doesn’t become any more interesting just because an actress says it on screen. And Laura doesn’t seem to have anything particularly interesting about her either.

Do you remember when Woody Allen stopped being Any Good? Whereas he once wrote witty scripts about neurotic New Yorkers not unlike himself, he ended up filming self-regarding pieces about the boring problems of the over rich with a light jazz soundtrack. We indulged him for a couple of these because of the strength of his Body of Work. Coppola does not have the gravitas to be afforded the same respect.

And yet, what do I know? I’ve just read a series of reviews telling me how great this film is, and I’m seriously perplexed. I guess part of the problem is that the critics feel a shred of empathy for the characters. They believe that someone who is a big shot entrepreneur would be remotely interesting, let alone a husband who you’d fight to keep hold of. Like most people in the film, Dean is a cipher, and the world that he represents is evil.

Some of Coppola’s earlier films attracted unjust criticism that just because her father is a bigshot director, she owes her success more to nepotism than any innate ability. On the basis of her early, excellent, films, I fundamentally disagree with this. And yet, On the Rocks displays a great deal of rich person’s complacency – not because of who Coppola’s father was, but because of what she has become in her own right.

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