‘On the Rocks’
Three and a half stars
Seventeen years after Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray collaborated on “Lost in Translation,” in which Murray delivered the second-best performance of his career*, and a half-decade after they gave us the meta holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas,” they’ve re-teamed for the whip-smart, low-key, bittersweet comedy/drama “On the Rocks.” The 70-year-old Murray is at the top of his deadpan game and Rashida Jones does some of her finest work playing Murray’s daughter — and yes, the superbly talented daughter of a show business icon has cast the superbly talented daughter of another show business icon (Quincy Jones) as a doppelganger of sorts.
It’s no slight to Coppola’s gifts to say she has delivered her take on a Woody Allen film, from the upper-middle-class characters to the love-letter framing of the Upper East Side and SoHo settings to the artsy professions of the main characters to the pop-up appearances of acerbic family members to the wisecracking friend who seems to exist only to interact with the lead and then disappears into the wings. Not to mention Murray is playing an aging Lothario who spouts dated and often-cringe inducing observations, to the point where we know a part of us should despise this guy even as he’s wearing us down and winning us over, because after all, it’s Bill Murray.
Jones’ Laura is in the home stretch of her 30s and seems to have it all. She’s married to the compassionate and successful Dean (Marlon Wayans), who has one of those movie-world gigs running some of sort of start-up company that’s about to blow up HUGE; she has two wonderful daughters, elementary student Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and toddler Theo (played by twins Anna and Alexandra Reimer); and she’s an accomplished author. Even her friends are a hoot, e.g., Jenny Slate’s Vanessa, who loves regaling Laura with stories of a star-crossed love affair that commenced during Hurricane Sandy.
But Laura’s becoming increasingly anxious about the possibility Dean is having a fling with his attractive young assistant, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), whom he refers to as “Fifi.” (Warning, warning, warning!) Laura doesn’t excuse the possible affair — she finds the mere prospect devastating — but she understands why Dean has been somewhat indifferent to her recently: “I’m just the buzzkill … scheduling things.”
Enter Laura’s father Felix (Murray), who’s always the most charming man in the room and knows it. Felix is a retired art gallery owner (he still sells the occasional seven-figure painting here and there) who sports the casually rumpled look of a man of wealth and taste as he glides around the world as if he’s starring in the movie of his own life. (With an almost ever-present cocktail in hand and a full-time chauffeur in New York City, Felix is also a bit reminiscent of a more grown-up version of Dudley Moore in “Arthur.”) When Laura expresses her suspicions about Dean to her dad, Felix sees it as the opportunity for a real caper. He and Laura will tail Dean around town and even follow him to a company retreat in Mexico, spying on him until they catch him in the act. What could possibly go sideways, screwball comedy style?
That’s it. That’s basically the movie. Even at 1 hour, 37 minutes, “On the Rocks” is a pretty thin slice of privileged, angst-ridden life, with the Dean storyline an excuse for a grown daughter and her exasperating, infuriating, irresponsible and yet irresistible father to connect on a myriad of levels. Felix sings to his daughter and tries to get her to whistle — she’s a terrible whistler — and he watches the grandkids and introduces them to “Breaking Bad” and poker while making egg creams for them in the middle of the day. He charms everyone from a third-generation Irish cop who pulls him over for speeding to hotel bar staffers to random women he encounters on the street. (“You’re beautiful!” he says to a pregnant stranger, and she’s more taken aback then offended, because the old guy seems harmless and not totally creepy.) Laura sees through her womanizing father and calls him on his bull-bleep, but always with affection and love.
Felix: “I don’t get why women have plastic surgery.”
Laura: “Because of men like you.”
Felix: “I prefer the factory original.”
Laura: “And every other make and model.”
Jones and Murray are wonderful together; many of the best scenes in “On the Rocks” are when it’s just the two of them, verbally fencing. As you’d expect, though Jones is the star of the movie and Laura has her showcase moments, whenever Jones and Murray are onscreen together, she has the reaction role, and she beautifully returns every one of the master’s volleys. As for Murray, he effortlessly executes a movie-star performance, including that singularly Bill Murray way of walking, where the first step he takes makes it seem like he might fall over until the rest of his body catches up, and then all of a sudden he’s in mid-stride, making it clear it’s Bill Murray’s world and we’re just happy to watch him in it.
*For Murray’s best performance, see “Groundhog Day.” And then see it again.