As a spiritual sequel to a Sofia Coppola project starring Bill Murray, On the Rocks is closer to A Very Murray Christmas than Lost in Translation. That’s not a knock—there are worse ways to spend the holiday season than ring-a-ding-dinging it in with Murray, Maya Rudolph, and Chris Rock—but it does give you a sense of the film’s ambitions, and achievement.
It’s also a good way of describing what we get from Murray in the movie. He plays Felix, an aging art dealer whose schmoozing, flirtatious ways are partly annoying and partly amusing to his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones, who also appeared in A Very Murray Christmas). A Manhattan novelist, Laura is struggling to balance her own career, two young children, and a busy tech entrepreneur named Dean for a husband (Marlon Wayans). When Laura begins to suspect Dean of having an affair, she turns to her father for his, um, experience in extramarital activities.
As Bob Harris, the morose movie star at the heart of Lost in Translation, Murray led with misery, letting his offbeat charm slip out between deep sighs. Felix is far less interesting: he’s an aggressive charmer who takes over every room he enters, to the point that even the most ardent Murray fans might find the character tiring. It isn’t until late in the film that we get another layer to the performance, when Felix tells Laura that the woman he left his family for years ago (but didn’t stay with) has died. “She was funny, you know,” he says, at once sympathetic because of his loss, but also monstrous because of the way the subject hurts Laura all over again. It’s a welcome crack in Felix’s blithe shell, but it comes too late and the movie passes over it too quickly.
Thankfully Jones is the actual star of the movie, as this is Laura’s story. Jones has always had a tricky screen presence—too tempered to entirely fit with the goofiness of Parks and Recreation and The Office, yet too comedic to anchor a serious drama—yet she’s found the right match here. Coppola’s feel for feminine interiority (here visually echoed by some gorgeous, New York-at-night cityscapes) and light touch for comedy are in sync with Jones’ abilities, giving Laura a richness that’s missing from all the other characters. (This is especially true of Wayans, whose wooden line readings of the trite, marital dialogue keep Dean from registering as a human being.)
In truth, the movie we’re here to see is the one with Laura and Felix, not Laura and Dean. And on that count On the Rocks passes as entertaining. (There’s also an occasional, genuine sweetness that recalls Coppola’s Somewhere, with Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning as father and daughter.) If only On the Rocks had been more revealing. I wish the film had wrestled a bit more with what it would really feel like to be dropped into A Very Murray Christmas every time your father appeared. Here and there, Coppola seems interested in poking that Murray persona. On the Rocks would have been much better if Murray had done some poking too.