Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” on Apple TV+ starting Oct. 23, may seem like a minor movie from the great American filmmaker, less significant than masterpieces like “Lost in Translation” or “Somewhere.”
It tells a simple, lighthearted, straightforward story of a New York woman, Laura (Rashida Jones), who begins to suspect that her marriage to Dean (Marlon Wayans) is in trouble. Her doting father Felix (Bill Murray) tries to help her in some very funny and slightly unorthodox ways.
Indeed, it doesn’t look particularly profound, nor particularly relevant to our time, yet it somehow recalls a movie like 1937’s “The Awful Truth,” a screwball comedy, also about a marriage in trouble.
That movie was released during the Great Depression, during the rise of fascism, and also didn’t seem particularly deep. But something about it clicked, and director Leo McCarey was awarded the Oscar for Best Director, an honor usually reserved for “important” films.
In the years since, how many filmmakers have tried to emulate that kind of classic comedy and ended up with noisy, cluttered messes? More recently, how many filmmakers have tried to emulate those great, sophisticated New York romantic comedies that Woody Allen used to make, back when it was OK to like Woody Allen?
They all have one thing in common: They try too hard. Coppola has done it so gracefully, so serenely, that she doesn’t even seem to have tried at all.
She is already known for her gentle, delicate filmmaking, always a luxurious miracle in an industry wherein bombast and flash are the norm. Here, she has taken her dreamy, poetic touch and met the screwball comedy halfway.
Take for example, a scene in which Felix and Laura follow an unsuspecting Dean in Felix’s roaring, red convertible sports car, running red lights and eventually being pulled over by police.
In any other movie, that would have been a slapsticky calamity, but it’s so breezy in “On the Rocks,” it encourages happy smiles. The real punchline occurs when Felix talks his way out of a speeding ticket.
Coppola also creates beautifully poignant moments, as when Dean and Laura are dining out to celebrate Laura’s birthday and a server brings a candle-lit dessert to, and then past, their table. Dean sees Laura’s reaction, and he realizes he should have thought of that, too. Their expressions alone tell the story.
“On the Rocks” is only a 97-minute movie, and it never feels ill-paced, even with moments like the one in which Felix and Laura sneak out of a party (“walk backwards so it doesn’t look like we’re leaving”) and stop to admire a Monet quietly hanging in an unoccupied hallway.
In another gorgeous moment, Felix remembers a lost love, the woman he left Laura’s mother for. Laura doesn’t really want to hear it, but Felix needs to let it out. Murray takes his time, with long pauses to consider and remember. Most other actors or directors wouldn’t have the courage to let a scene breathe like that.
Murray is also hilariously funny, seemingly doing nothing other than being his amazing self. When Laura leaves Felix to babysit his young grandchildren for a while, she comes back to find that 1) he’s shown them an episode of “Breaking Bad,” 2) he’s made them egg creams right before dinnertime, and 3) he’s teaching them how to play poker — all perfectly sensible to him.
Indeed, after a long series of strange, quirky supporting roles, Murray is at his Murray-est here, and it’s great to have him back. It’s his best and best-fitting role since “Lost in Translation” and Jim Jarmusch’s equally great “Broken Flowers.”
With its essence of comic excellence, “On the Rocks” recalls yet another comedy classic, Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” from 1941, not because of its story, but because of its theme. In it, the hero — a filmmaker — discovers that, in hard times, people need comedy and laughter as much as, or more than, they need messages.
“On the Rocks” is a movie so simple and delightful that one of the recurring motifs is learning how to whistle.
In perhaps the darkest time our country has ever known, Coppola has given us the gift of smiles and laughter and warmth and hugs. And that’s why a movie like “On the Rocks” also can be profound.
On the Rocks
Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate
Written and directed by: Sofia Coppola
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes