Two kids, a dying marriage, and a mysterious bottle of body oil. A typical recipe for both investigation and self-reflection to ensue. Yet, Sofia Coppola’s new film On The Rocks doesn’t quite bite.
Not to say that the writer/director doesn’t at least attempt to prepare a delightful mise-en-place. Our protagonist Laura, is a bestselling author trying to keep her head above water and the creative juices flowing. She’s raising two kids within the confines of the New York City elite. Where her husband Dean, hasn’t really been of any help lately. Apparently, social media marketing and a shiny new assistant have him jet setting across the country at a constant rate. So much so, that he even has to fly out on her 40th birthday, missing the occasion entirely.
Suspicions start to fester between eggs benedicts and mommy and me classes. As Laura anxiously questions the nature of her role as both a wife and mother, with a few pensive stares to boot. But, everything boils over when Dean, arriving late from the airport in a haze, passionately kisses Laura in bed. Only to look surprised when he opens his eyes and realizes that it’s his wife. Then, as if on cue, Laura finds a woman’s body oil nestled between his oxfords—what’s going on here?
Coppola, by using some of the hallmarks of torrid affairs is framing a critical story about modern domesticity. She’s questioning the liberated role of the working housewife. She’s wondering if, in 2020, we still expect women to succumb to monogamous suffering in order to “have it all?”
Over the threshold
But, where this prickly notion of aristocratic nuptials ends is with the entrance of Laura’s “charismatic” father, Felix. Portrayed by Bill Murray, trying his best to recreate his sparkly scenes from Coppola’s other film Lost In Translation. Felix is an art dealer— a good one at that. As he comfortably keeps both a private limousine driver and jars of caviar in tow. But, he isn’t so good at marriage. Splitting up from Laura’s mother early on due to extra-marital affairs and hastily recommending that she spy on Dean after work to see what’s really going on.
Despite the ill-advised nature of the plan, the duo loads up in his vintage cruiser to tail Dean. But, not without Felix espousing some of his backward beliefs about gender roles. Laura responds to gems like, “It’s nature…males are forced to fight to dominate and impregnate every female…” with a tepid eye roll. Signaling that Felix’s wisdom is mere background noise to the dogging question at hand: Am I enough? A heartbreaking query that somehow, doesn’t ever really get an answer.
Hijinx ensues as Felix charms his way out of a speeding ticket. Teetering the line between a social commentary on white privilege and complete tone-deafness. This muddled confusion even drives the duo all the way to Mexico, following Dean on a work trip. But, Laura’s quandaries are never more than a mere instigator for Felix’s obtuse public performances of masculinity. From complimenting a waitress’s physique to defending his infidelity, Laura’s rightful marital concerns become a mere landing strip for his comedic timing. Reducing her legitimate and downright realistic anxieties into yet another “crazy wife” crying wolf.
But, Coppola’s usual penchant for dreamy and unapologetically feminine landscapes does manage to make an appearance. Brief shots of the New York skyline from moving car windows end up being a perfect interim between moments of action. Allowing the audience small moments to empathize with Laura’s self-doubt.
This return to directorial form serves as a reminder of Coppola’s fraught relationship with the film industry. Born into a filmmaking dynasty, Coppola was always seen as the spoiled product of nepotism. With male critics often wrongly slamming her work with being too “frivolous” to be taken seriously. A downright gendered form of critique against her body of work, which primarily focuses on brooding female protagonists. Who notably, have little regard for men or for marriage. When writing her subjects, she takes her inherent background of privilege and utilizes it to dissect a myriad of heroines. Such as her vexing modern take on Marie Antoinette. Who, in a less cautious director’s hands, would have probably ended up as either a lifeless period piece or a warped, one-dimensional villain.
Her sensitive eye for the (white) female experience has opened up numerous avenues for complex female characters and female filmmakers to even exist in Hollywood.
That gossamer empathy for her female protagonists, skids to a perplexing halt with her portrayal of Laura. A woman probably factory-produced to be the center of a Coppola film. Wealthy, beautiful, and deeply troubled. But, instead of splaying out her “first world problems” in a uniquely deft way, they’re the butt of the joke.
Laura’s doubts are laughed away by the end, as it’s revealed that Dean wasn’t cheating, and they return to a blissful life in SoHo. A double-take of a conclusion as evidence of both Dean’s probable infidelity and obvious neglect is displayed throughout much of the runtime.
Which muddles the very intention of the film itself. Though Laura utters “girls can do anything they want” to her daughters several times, the ending seems to only confirm Felix’s narrow assumptions on marriage. Which are that husbands can fly free, have both a career and a family, and shouldn’t apologize when he won’t make equal time for both. And a woman should just be quiet if she’s unhappy. A sentiment that unnervingly echoes the critique Coppola received early on in her career.
While Coppola’s film overall does feel like a fruitless tryst into trying to explore the complexities of being a 21st-century wife, it’s not an excuse to disregard Coppola’s contributions to filmmaking as a whole.
Contrary to what much of this feature implies, women can (in all its cliche) “do it all” without the permission nor the validation of those in charge. Her footing may be lost within the stereotypical contrivances of her own cultivated aesthetic, but I still have full belief that her romantic, feminine oeuvre of filmmaking will continue to trek on. Clutching caviar, or not.