When I’m not changing my baby daughter’s diapers, marshaling her for naps, teaching her the finer points of baking bread, or otherwise marveling at every milestone great and small, I tend to reflect on the ways our relationship might change as she grows up. I imagine most fathers do. I wonder who she’ll be, how she’ll consider me, whether or not she’ll want to keep learning from her old man as I’ll surely hope to learn from her. This is the parent’s mindset: Will my kid still love me when they become their own person? Will they want to spend time with me? Will they care? And more importantly, if they don’t, can I make them?
Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks starts out as a story of possessive fatherhood, with Felix (Bill Murray) narrating to his teenage daughter, Laura: “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You are mine until you get married. Then you’re still mine.” The girl laughs off the declaration as a jape, which turns out to be a catastrophic tactical mistake. In her womanhood, Laura (Rashida Jones), does indeed get married to a man, Dean (Marlon Wayans), and they have two beautiful daughters of their own, eldest Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and youngest Theo (Alexandra Mary Reimer). Dean is spearheading his own startup, a company that provides vaguely sketched-out services but which keeps him not only busy but in constant motion. Laura stays at home with the girls and, when she’s afforded rare moments of peaceful alone time, attempts to write a book the way Sisyphus attempts to push a boulder up a hill.
She’s in a rut. Dean’s on the rise. He’s so often cross-country that the yawning gap between them is visible from the stratosphere, and then along comes Felix to sweep Laura up and indulge her fear that Dean in fact might be plowing his assistant, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), a knockout at least 10 years her junior. So begins a caper as Felix, protective by way of outmoded patriarchal charm, endeavors to prove Dean’s infidelity to prop Laura back up using all of his cunning and a not insignificant chunk of his wealth and social capital. Coppola pours sweet foam over a bitter cup. The heart of the film is darkness, the exterior exuberance, and taken together they make for piquant viewing. Felix is a hoot. Laura is a human being. Not once does she acquiesce to his interventions or ask him to take her out for lunch unprompted, but she can’t help getting vacuumed into the whirlwind of his presence. All she really wants to do is climb into bed or maybe the tub.
Felix is a classic Murray character, all dry, warm wit and a bottomless source of colorful life anecdotes delivered with hangdog magnetism. He’s like a Saint Bernard in man’s clothes, with man’s refined tastes and antediluvian beliefs on romance. “Monogamy and marriage are based on the concept of property,” he says while whisking Laura off to dinner. His driver, Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci), kindly rebuffs him as Laura rolls her eyes. Felix is full of fun facts handcrafted to justify his lifelong inability to keep it in his pants, a weakness that led to the dissolution of his marriage to Laura’s mother and also burdened her with pain she still carries as an adult. He isn’t husband material. He isn’t really father material, either, except that he performs a father’s partial function as the de facto good time parent, a role men adopt because that’s the job culture hires them for.
Laura delights in his antics in spite of herself, and though Murray is likely to be the recipient of the bulk of critical praise, it’s Jones who anchors On the Rocks. Hers might not be the flashier role, but it is the meatier one. All Murray has to do to bring Felix to gregarious life is reach into his bag of Murray tricks, which isn’t to discount his work as much as properly contextualize it. On the other hand, Jones spins Laura out of whole cloth—creating a character whose aspirations are many and often conflicting. She loves her girls and clearly relishes time spent with them, and yet she could use time for herself, and she could also use time to jump Dean’s bones if only Dean was there, except he’s never really there even when he’s there. There’s an ache in Jones’ eyes and gravity tugging at the corner of her mouth. She’s helpless to her dad’s wiles. Everyone is, including Coppola and the audience. A night out with Felix, even for the purposes of staking out a philandering hubby, sounds irresistible, but the hangover the next day leaves bruises on the soul.
That’s a symptom of late-stage infantilism. On the Rocks suggests that men grown old are really just babies with an insatiable need for the world to love them, their kids—their daughters—in particular. Their childishness is revealed by the volume of their charisma: the taller the tales, the costlier the tab, the more blatant the flirt, the more extravagant the lifestyle, the more a man’s insecurity is revealed. Laura is at once drawn to and repelled by Felix. In light of Felix’s screed to young Laura, this is the inevitable crest of their bond, but Coppola’s gentle, yearning filmmaking generates sympathy for the father and empathy for the daughter. To an extent, many dads probably want to be Felix, if not in terms of affluence or material possessions then for his indomitable affability. None of them want Laura to read them to fifth the way she does Felix, though. In On the Rocks, contempt is the cost of cool.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.