On the Rocks, the first Apple TV+ arthouse film, is an extremely winning combination of midlife crisis, comedy of remarriage, and road-trip movie.
Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s charmingly cynical, shaggy-dog anti-romance — which stars Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, and debuts today on Apple TV+ after a brief theatrical release — is a smart step toward filling out the streaming service’s growing library of original movies.
On the Rocks review
For people already familiar with Coppola and her brand of formally precise arch-comedies of manners and studies of isolation, I reviewed the movie for RogerEbert.com for the occasion of its premiere at the New York Film Festival.
For the uninitiated, you’re in luck. There’s no one I love talking about more.
Sofia Coppola vs. the critics
Coppola faced a long uphill climb toward being taken seriously by a largely male critical establishment. The bead on her was she was only being allowed to make movies because her father, Francis Ford Coppola, was one of the most important and famous directors in America.
After conclusively proving herself an artist with her own voice, she remained subject to a strain of sexist criticism that said her movies, which tended to focus on the problems that wealthy people suffer, were empty and callow. This overlooked her stunning visual sense. Plus, it discounted the fact that she is one of a precious handful of female filmmakers in America actually allowed to discuss female pain and desire.
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Her debut one-two — 1999’s The Virgin Suicides and 2003’s Lost in Translation — made it clear that she could produce distinctive, crowd-pleasing studies of female desire. Those films remain personal favorites of many, even if they don’t fully showcase where Coppola’s strengths would lie, or what her best work would look like.
When Coppola made both the richly conceived Marie Antoinette in 2006 and the beautifully vacant Somewhere in 2010 (about an actor realizing he’s pushed away his hopes at meaningful relationships), people complained about being made to care about the uber-rich.
After The Bling Ring in 2013, critics complained that they shouldn’t be made to care about money-hungry teenagers. When she made hothouse western psychodrama The Beguiled in 2017, those same critics said she should stick to movies about money-hungry teenagers.
In essence, she can’t seem to win.
He’s actin’ single, I’m drinkin’ double
On the Rocks is about a woman (played by Rashida Jones) who appears to have it all: a beautiful Manhattan apartment, a loving husband, two kids and a burgeoning career as a writer. So why isn’t she happy? Maybe it’s because she suspects that her loving husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair with his work wife (Jessica Henwick).
Enter her hell-raising, ne’er-do-well father (Bill Murray), who has all the free time and money in the world to spend spying on her suspect hubby with her to get to the bottom of the situation.
This isn’t new ground for Coppola, but no one quite frames misery with the same liveliness or specificity. The images here, by Coppola’s regular photographer Philippe Le Sourd, are sparkling visions of nervous beauty. He sees in the garden parties, resorts and chic cocktail lounges the same damning splendor.
Every location could be paradise or a mausoleum. That’s long been the secret to Coppola’s images of wealth. For all the silken finery and forbidden comforts, there’s an unshakeable anxiety to it all. Look what it does to these people.
On the Rocks will wow the crowds
On the Rocks seems at once destined to shut up Coppola’s detractors by being her first true crowd-pleaser, and also likely to garner more first-world-problems critiques. She seems to have leaned into relishing the things about her life, and her character’s lives, that she can’t help. As usual, the point is that money doesn’t protect you against loneliness and existential despair.
So, yes, everyone in this movie is rich. Yes, the lead character has, like Coppola, a famously wealthy philandering father. Yes, every plot point here hinges on things Murray’s aging Don Juan can afford to buy. And no, that doesn’t matter. On the Rocks is a film that bypasses all logical concerns by being funny and full to bursting with joie de vivre.
The key with Coppola is to just enjoy the vibe of the piece, because she crafts those like a seasoned DJ. On the Rocks isn’t much more than a fine comedy. But as a piece of visual art, a catalog of sights and sounds, it’s always thrilling and easy to love.
On the Rocks on Apple TV+
Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.