October 23, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Mexico, the dramatic film “On the Rocks” features a cast of white and African American characters (and a few Asians) representing the upper-middle-class and middle class.
Culture Clash: A married mother of two young daughters begins to believe her philandering father’s suspicions that her husband is cheating on her.
Culture Audience: “On the Rocks” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about “privileged people’s problems.”
“On the Rocks,” written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is the type of movie that Woody Allen has made for most of his career, but “On the Rocks” is told from a female director’s perspective. It’s a story about an upper-middle-class woman in New York City who spends almost the entire movie worrying about whether or not her husband is cheating on her. And there are several scenes with conversations about the differences between how men and women handle romance and a committed relationship. “On the Rocks” had its world premiere at the 2020 New York Film Festival.
In order for the film not to be too talkative and have some action, “On the Rocks” throws in a plot development of “I’m going to spy on my husband,” so that viewers get to see different angles of her privileged lifestyle, where she can have cocktails at exclusive lounges in the middle of the day and jet off to Mexico whenever she wants. And did we mention that this woman has daddy issues? Because that’s what’s propelling her to feel so insecure about her marriage.
“On the Rocks” telegraphs those daddy issues from the film’s opening scene, which features a dark screen with a voiceover of an unseen man telling his unseen daughter, who is presumably underage at the time this conversation is taking place: “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys until you’re married. And then you’re still mine.”
The movie then cuts to the lavish wedding of Laura (played by Rashida Jones) and Dean (played by Marlon Wayans), who are blissfully happy on this big day in their relationship. The wedding reception is in one of those European-styled ballroom halls that includes a romantically lit swimming pool on the property. When they are alone at the reception, Laura and Dean are seen impulsively stripped down to their underwear and frolicking in the swimming pool.
The movie then fast-forwards several years later. Laura and Dean are now parents to two daughters: Maya (played by Liyanna Muscat), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, and Theo (played by identical twins Alexandra Reimer and Anna Reimer), who’s about 3 or 4 years old. Maya and Theo are both adorable and obedient kids. Dean is a busy executive at a company whose industry is not named, but it’s the type of company that revolves around getting clients from all over the world. Therefore, Dean does a lot of traveling.
Laura, who’s 39 and soon about to turn 40, is a writer who’s working on a novel called “Amici e Conoscenti,” which is Italian for “Friends and Acquaintances.” The movie has a brief flash of the book cover, and it looks as pretentious as it sounds. Laura and Dean live in the type of spacious New York City apartment that’s for people who can afford a home that’s worth at least $3 million. However, they don’t have servants, and Laura’s casual style of dressing indicates that she tries to be as “down-to-earth” as possible.
One thing that Laura is very uptight about though is her current situation of having writer’s block. She moans to Dean that she shouldn’t have sold her book before writing it. Laura, who works from home, also complains that it’s hard for her to adjust to writing during the day when she’s accustomed to writing at night. In other words, Laura has privileged people’s problems.
And soon, there’s another problem that will preoccupy Laura’s thoughts. One night, when Laura and Dean are in bed, he starts kissing her while he’s half-asleep, but then he suddenly stops when he hears Laura’s voice. Laura doesn’t really know what to think about this interrupted amorous moment, so she asks two people in separate phone conversations. And she gets two completely different answers.
The first person she asks is an unidentified female friend, who tells Laura that she shouldn’t worry about it because Dean is a wonderful and loving husband who wouldn’t cheat on her. The other person Laura talks to about it is her father Felix (played by Bill Murray), who immediately tells Laura that Dean is probably cheating on her. Laura gives Dean the benefit of the doubt and tries to put the incident out of her mind.
But then, one day, while she’s unpacking Dean’s luggage, she sees a woman’s toiletry bag in his suitcase. She opens the bag and sees body oil. She takes the bag out and leaves it on the dresser. Her suspicions begin to percolate, but she doesn’t say anything to Dean about it right away. Some of the passion has gone out of their marriage, but Laura thinks it’s because they’ve been busy with their separate careers.
Soon after finding this mystery toiletry bag, Laura and Dean attend a work party that Dean’s company is having at the office. At the party, she meets for the first time a woman named Fiona (played by Jessica Henwick), a fairly new account manager who works closely with Dean and usually goes on the same business trips with Dean and some of their other colleagues. Fiona is outgoing, effusive, and seems very happy to meet Laura.
Fiona then introduces Laura to two other work colleagues: Jenna (played by Zoe Bullock) and Chase (played by Chase Sui Wonders), who aren’t as friendly as Fiona. In fact, they seem slightly uncomfortable talking to Laura, so the conversation is brief and awkward. At this point, viewers are probably thinking what Laura is probably thinking: “Are any of these women having an affair with Dean?”
During Laura and Dean’s ride back home, Laura casually mentions the toiletry bag that she found in Dean’s suitcase. He tells her that the bag belongs to Fiona, who asked him to carry it for her in his suitcase because the toiletry bag couldn’t fit into her carry-on luggage. He says he’ll return the bag to Fiona. Dean’s response seems open and honest, without hesitation, surprise or guilt. And so, Laura accepts that explanation and doesn’t make a big issue out of it.
However, Laura’s father Felix won’t let it go, and he plants seeds of doubt in Laura’s mind about Dean’s marital fidelity when he starts interrogating Laura about Dean’s activities when Dean is away on business trips. Felix, who is a semi-retired art dealer who used to own an art gallery, even gives an analysis of the type of hotels that Dean stays at, by commenting on which hotels are more discreet than others if someone wants to have an affair. Felix is also an incessant name dropper who loves to brag about all the people around the world he knows, including hotel concierges, who can do favors for him.
How does Felix know all of about the mind of a cheater? Because he’s a longtime philanderer, and it’s the reason why Laura’s mother Diane (played by Alva Chinn) and Felix got divorced years ago. Felix left Diane for his mistress, a much-younger woman named Robin, but that relationship didn’t work out either.
It’s not clearly stated when Felix and Diane got divorced, but it’s implied that it happened when Laura and her younger sister Amanda (played by Juliana Canfield) were still children and living at home. It’s clear as the story goes on that the devastation of the divorce and Felix’s perpetual selfishness have caused Amanda to become estranged from her father. And the pent-up resentment that Laura has about Felix’s role in the divorce comes out later in the movie’s best scene.
Felix is addicted to being a playboy, because everywhere he goes, he flirts with women who are almost always young enough to be his daughter. He also has an outdated, very sexist attitude toward life that is a mix of Neanderthal and elitist. In the beginning of the movie, Felix is only heard on the phone because he’s away on a trip in Paris. When he arrives back in New York City to see Laura, his insufferable personality is on full display.
Felix loves to spout self-righteous platitudes where he thinks he’s always right in his mindset that men always have to be dominant and superior to women. His ramblings are a mishmash of garbled anthropology and philosophy to justify why he has such a sexist attitude toward women. It’s really all just Felix’s egomaniacal way of denying that he’s a crass boor who doesn’t want to admit that a lot of men have evolved from the old days when women were treated like property.
For example, in one scene, Felix explains to Laura that in ancient times, women’s breasts reminded men of when humans used to walk on their haunches. The rounder the breasts, the more desirable the woman, according to Felix. Felix also says that men are attracted to adolescent females because adolescent females are easier to catch and therefore easier to mate with in man’s instinctual need to spread his seed. What’s creepy about this comment about adolescent females is that Felix thinks that what applied to ancient times—when human life expectancy was much shorter than it is now and having kids at age 14 was considered normal—applies to society today.
Adding to the “creep” level of Felix, he’s weirdly flattered when he and Laura are out in public together and people assume that Laura is his girlfriend. He mentions it any chance he gets to Laura, who is understandably uncomfortable with this semi-incestuous implication. It’s pathetic insecurity on Felix’s part, but there’s not much Laura thinks she can do about it because he’s her father and he’s set in his ways. Occasionally, she scolds him by saying things like, “Can you just be normal around women?”
And it comes as no surprise that Felix thinks that men aren’t wired to be monogamous. It’s an incredibly narrow-minded viewpoint that doesn’t take into account that not everyone is the same when it comes to love and committed relationships. It’s an example of how Felix, as he does throughout the entire story, believes that his way of thinking is always the correct way, even if it’s “politically incorrect” by today’s standards.
As annoying as Felix might be to some people watching this movie, there are many men with money and privilege who think the exact same way as Felix does. They might not share these thoughts with everyone, but they will talk about it with people whom they feel comfortable with, and this backwards mindset is reflected in how they live their lives. (These are the type of men who hate the #MeToo movement.) Some people might think that the Felix character is over-the-top and unrealistic, but it’s a very accurate depiction of how some people in certain social circles really think and act in life.
And so, it comes as no surprise, considering Felix’s history of infidelity, that he’s quick to assume that Dean is cheating on Laura. Felix keeps nagging Laura to do something about it and even takes it upon himself to hire a private detective to spy on Dean. Felix keeps telling Laura that Dean is probably having an affair with Fiona.
At first, Laura is appalled by Felix’s assumptions, but eventually she gets sucked into Felix’s suspicions and gives in to the idea that she should start spying on Dean too. Felix is happy to egg her on, and he spearheads arrangements so that Laura can go with him on these spying excursions.
There are several scenes where Felix shows up at Laura’s home or calls her and expects her to drop everything so that Laura can accompany him for drinks at this swanky hotel or that upscale lounge. Over cocktails and at stuffy parties, they commiserate over Dean’s possible infidelity, as well as talk about Felix’s point of view that it’s harder for men to be faithful spouses than it is for women.
At one point in the movie, Laura wails to Felix and asks him if it’s possible for women to keep their love partners’ interest and if it’s possible for men to still be attracted women once they reach past a certain age. (Felix believes a woman reaches her attractiveness “expiration date” around the age of 40.) Felix says that it’s possible for a woman to hold a man’s interest in a long-term relationship if she still has confidence that she’s attractive.
Even though Felix is the last person who should be lecturing other people about successful, monogamous relationships, he does have a good point about self-confidence that Laura completely misses because she’s become too caught up in her own misery and insecurities in thinking that she might not be good enough for Dean anymore. An objective observer would also be able to see that Felix seems way too invested and too eager to find out if Dean is a lying, cheating husband. It’s as if Felix wants confirmation that there are more men than not who are cheaters, even if it means that his daughter will be emotionally hurt in the process.
The dynamics between Laura and the women in her family have subtle clues about how race and class play a role in their family’s hierarchy. There’s a scene where Laura, her sister Amanda, and their multiracial mother Diane are having an outdoor luncheon with Felix’s mother (played by Barbara Bain), who’s called Gran in the movie, at Gran’s grand estate. Gran immediately expresses disapproval to Laura about how Laura is dressed (Laura tends to wear blazers, jeans and flat shoes), while Diane nips this criticism in the bud by telling Laura that she looks great.
The topic inevitably turns to Felix, who is clearly a troublemaker in the family, and Gran makes excuses for him by saying he was rebellious even as a child. Amanda tells Laura that she doesn’t know how she can still put up with their father, while Diane (who’s been through enough with Felix to last a lifetime) tries not to say anything negative about Felix in front of his mother. This scene explains a lot about Felix’s upbringing and why he turned out the way that he did. (Felix’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie, but it’s implied that Felix’s mother is a widow.)
In one of Felix and Laura’s spying excursions, Felix shows his elitist attitude when he scoffs that Dean and some colleagues are going to be hanging out at Soho House (a members-only social club in downtown Manhattan), which Felix considers to be a “downmarket” place because it’s apparently not upscale enough for Felix. For this spying trip, Felix picks up Laura in his red Alfa Romeo, as you do when you’re spying on someone and you want to show off your car instead of being truly incognito.
When Dean and Fiona get in a taxi together, it leads to a not-very-subtle car chase with Felix speeding to try catch up to the taxi. Felix gets pulled over for speeding by two cop partners, but he charms his way out of getting a ticket because Felix happens to know the father and grandfather of one of the cops. The cop’s demeanor changes from stern to friendly.
As Felix and Laura drive off, Laura says to him, “It must be great to be you.” And Felix agrees. The words “white privilege” aren’t said in this scene, but this scene shows how someone like Felix can get away with certain things, while someone of a different color or race who’s pulled over by police for the same reason probably wouldn’t be let off as easily.
The subplot about Laura’s writer’s block is important because it provides some context for why Laura wastes time and goes along with Felix’s schemes. She’s avoiding working on her book to go off to wherever Felix thinks they should go on a moment’s notice. She’s running away from a problem (finishing her book) by distracting herself with another potential problem (her possibly crumbling marriage).
Nowhere is this avoidance more evident than when Felix convinces Laura that they should go to Mexico to spy on Dean while Dean is on a business trip there with Fiona. In the movie’s most unrealistic contrivance, Felix just happens to know someone who owns a condo that’s right next to the resort in Mexico where Dean is staying. And so, Laura hastily arranges for her mother to watch the kids while she flies off to Mexico with Felix for a few days. This trip leads to a reckoning that gives clarity to Laura on her relationship with her father and on her marriage.
Because the movie is more about Laura’s relationship with Felix than it is about Laura’s relationship with Dean, this father and daughter are the two characters who get the most screen time. Dean seems like an overall good guy, but there’s not enough shown of him and the other supporting characters to give any insight into their personalities. Jenny Slate has a recurring role as a single mother named Vanessa, whose son goes to the same school as Laura’s daughter Maya. Vanessa’s only purpose in the movie is to give neurotic, rambling monologues about her love life to Laura while they’re waiting somewhere at the school, and Laura has to find an excuse to get away from Vanessa.
Jones is the cast member who shines the most in the emotional scenes between her and Murray, who portrays Felix as jaded and desperately trying not to show his insecurities. For all of Felix’s macho attitude toward women, he’s still very much alone and doesn’t have a romantic partner in his life who truly loves him and vice versa. There’s a world-weary sadness that Murray brings to the role that’s nuanced among Felix’s ego posturing.
The movie is also a subtle commentary on how people who seemingly “have it all” can still find ways to create problems in their lives, often out of sheer boredom. Because really, the average person does not have time to gallivant around cocktail lounges during the day and fly to resorts in other countries with their father on short notice, in order to spy on a spouse.
However, amid all of these shenanigans, what this movie shows is that Laura and Felix, in their own ways, are haunted by how infidelity and divorce had an effect on their family. Laura doesn’t want to go through what her mother Diane experienced (having her husband leave her for another woman), while Felix is determined to show Laura that it could happen to her because he’s convinced that Dean is cheating on Laura.
Rashida Jones, who is the daughter of Grammy-winning legend Quincy Jones, co-directed the 2018 documentary “Quincy” about her father’s life. This documentary, which had Quincy Jones’ participation, shows that Rashida also has a close but complicated relationship with her divorced father, who has publicly admitted that he’s incapable of extended monogamy. That’s probably why there’s an authenticity to how Rashida Jones plays the role of Laura in expressing both loyalty and exasperation when she’s with her father.
“On the Rocks” isn’t Coppola’s best film, but it’s not her worst either. The performances of Rashida Jones and Murray are the best parts of what could have been a very pedestrian movie. “On the Rocks” might be compared to Coppola’s 2003 Oscar-winning movie “Lost in Translation,” because that film also had Murray as an older man in a complicated relationship with a younger woman (played by Scarlett Johansson). However, “On the Rocks” is very much in the mold of a Woody Allen film, except that Allen doesn’t cast African Americans as stars of his movies. But just like Allen’s films, “On the Rocks” avoids showing racial issues in a racially diverse big city like New York because the movie wants to be about how privileged neurotics need love too.
Apple TV+ released “On the Rocks” in select U.S. cinemas October 9, 2020. Apple TV+ premiered “On the Rocks” on October 23, 2020.