On The Rocks

This post is about the 2020 film On the Rocks and contains full spoilers within. I highly recommend seeing the film before reading.

I am, in theory, against stunt casting. I used to be more opposed to it until I realised that, with a few exceptions, almost all casting is stunt casting. Like it or not, it is impossible to separate the actor from their reputation. It’s one of the unique aspects of performance art – any actor you hire will carry some kind of image in the mind of the audience, and a skilled director will take that image into account. While I used to believe that stunt casting interfered with a director or writer’s vision by introducing unnecessary preconceived notions on the part of the audience, I can now see the use of it. In Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks, for example, she utilises this kind of casting to great effect. In fact, were it not for the presence of Bill Murray as Felix and Rashida Jones as Laura, it might be hard to see what the point of On the Rocks even is.

Let’s start with Jones, who people might recognise as Ann from Parks and Recreation. However, the casting of Jones extends beyond her being a friendly face from a popular sitcom. Of course, that still plays a role in making the audience immediately amiable to her. Jones’ natural screen charisma means that even though she spends most of On the Rocks looking discontent and isolated within the frame, we’re pretty sympathetic to her plight from the moment we first see her on domestic duties. On the Rocks is not what you’d call a film that’s at all in touch with reality – the characters are rich to the point where it’s almost hard to feel anything for them at all, and their problems are often on the point of tipping into being completely unrelatable. Although I too have often suffered writer’s block, it’s a bit harder to feel for Laura when she’s sitting in a huge NYC loft staring at her blank Scrivener document. It’s a testament to Jones’ performance and screen presence, then, that I was able to connect with Laura at all.  

The main reason for casting Jones, however, isn’t just because of her acting chops, but because of her father. Both Sofia Coppola and Rashida Jones come from prestigious backgrounds; Sofia Coppola’s father is Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, while Quincy is the ‘Jones’. In casting Rashida, then, Coppola situates the film in the mode of the semi-autobiographical, but also slightly shifts the focus of the narrative. While the ostensible narrative of the film is about Laura’s concern over Dean’s fidelity, the choice of Jones puts a lot more thematic pressure on the relationship between Felix and Laura. It’s pretty clear given the screen-time devoted to Felix that this is what the film is centred on, but the casting reinforces that dynamic as the actual point of the film. The cheating, as important as it might seem in giving the film a narrative drive, is actually rarely important to the characters’ inner emotional journeys. The audience is told instead through a meta device where to focus their attention. It’s perhaps for this reason that the cheating story is resolved so neatly, perhaps even disappointingly cleanly. Viewing the film this way supposes that the pivotal moment of the ending isn’t Dean giving Laura the box at all, but what she puts in the box.

With that said, let’s now turn to the other piece of stunt casting; Bill Murray as Laura’s father Felix. In casting Murray, Coppola again achieves two distinct results. One is just how much energy he manages to bring to the film. A natural result of audience affinity for Murray is that the first 20 or so minutes are spent almost waiting for his arrival, as Coppola teases us with his voice off-screen and messages over the phone. Once he does arrive, his natural charm is magnetic for the film and puts it into drive. It’s a confident performance by Murray, who doesn’t even need to move for the camera and characters to be drawn to him. Murray spends most of the film either standing or sitting rather than in motion, but the camera tends to focus on him even over Laura, mirroring her own feelings of inadequacy with her father.

More than that, the film cleverly plays and interrogates with the Murray persona in a way that a lot of films don’t. It’s telling that most directors cast Murray for one specific type of performance and use him in that way without ever diverting too much from it. It might be because he’s just so good at it, but most actors with a specific niche are still occasionally cast to play against type. Only in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore is the Murray persona properly played with, but since then Anderson has been content to use the comedian as more of a prop (might be notable here to say I’ve yet to see The Life Aquatic). But On the Rocks deals with Murray in a surprisingly subtle way, preserving his natural charm while off-setting it with a splash of “colourful” older-generation sexism. In doing so, it feels like Coppola is addressing some of the darker side of the Murray persona, the casual sexism that defined a role like Peter Venkman. In the final argument between Laura and Felix, there’s a moment of catharsis where Laura can call out some of his behaviour throughout the film as pathetic. Adding to this, the lights switch out at the moment of confrontation, hiding Murray’s face from the audience. Murray’s puppy-dog eyes are a powerful force, but in obscuring them it lets Jones’ voice ring through more clearly, so when Felix finally responds to her calling him ‘pathetic’ by saying ‘What happened to you? You used to be fun”, it doesn’t feel like a charming Murray aphorism, but a depressing rejection of reality by a lonely man-child.

The other big effect of casting Bill Murray is to put this film in a state of indirect conversation with Coppola’s biggest hit, Lost in Translation. That film is one with a lot of personal significance to me, and although its flaws are apparent, it’s not a film I’m capable of viewing or discussing with anything near objective eyes. But it’s important to talk about Lost in Translation in order to really understand On the Rocks, because if anything the latter often plays like a real response to the former.

We’ll start with the obvious comparison; that both are about an older man played by Bill Murray, and a chapter in his life that revolves around his meetings with a younger woman as both of them struggle with a sense of discontent. In Lost in Translation there’s a romantic element characterised by the fleeting nature of their meeting in Tokyo, while in On the Rocks the two are father and daughter, eliminating some of what might be seen as a slightly more lecherous element of the earlier film. One could even see Felix’s constant hitting on younger women as a slight criticism of Murray’s role as Bob, but I think the change in roles isn’t so much to remove anything creepy but more to remove anything romantic.

There are three moments in On the Rocks that really reminded me of Lost in Translation; the first is the very opening scene, where the newlyweds silently sneak out of their own wedding to jump into the pool. The second is Laura and Felix’s car drive through the streets of New York at night, as the two of them zip through traffic in a tiny old red sports car. The third is Murray’s impromptu karaoke performance on the beach in Mexico. All of these moments draw on that hazy night-time dreamy quality that defines the atmosphere of Lost in Translation and makes it so memorable. But while On the Rocks occasionally allows us glimpses of that beauty, it mainly withholds them from the audience, almost baiting us before cutting them off too quickly. If Lost in Translation deals with the bittersweet fantasy of being displaced in life, then On the Rocks rejects that fantasy for a sense of mature reality. Felix may be constantly chasing that night of Tokyo bliss again, but Laura finds herself able to see through the haze and wish for something more substantial, if only after getting tricked by her father that she wants that same thing he is constantly chasing after.

Because of that, it’s almost tempting to read On the Rocks as a sadder film than Lost in Translation, one that stands in opposition to the youthful melancholy that Coppola’s early film embodies. In its presentation of Felix, it certainly seems to make Bob in Lost in Translation into more of a pathetic figure, rather than a Romantically dispossessed one. But On the Rocks presents an alternate picture of happiness, one that clearly comes from a more mature director; someone who has carved out a place that is both accepting and critical of the past. Felix and Laura stay in touch, but we see in the final scene that Laura has found a more stable version of happiness without him.

It’s an ending that is thematically appropriate, but feels slightly too neat, as if Coppola is trying to make too much of a definitive statement about life. Surely, one might think, there is still room for the romanticism of Lost in Translation, even if Coppola herself has found satisfaction elsewhere. At the end of seeing On the Rocks, I still found myself unable to come to terms with that ending. In a way, I wanted there to be more ambiguity as to whether Dean had cheated on Laura. Perhaps this is a reflection of my age, or my devotion to her earlier film – it might be that in later days I will come to relate more to On the Rocks (as depressing as that might seem to me now). But even now, although I may not connect with it in the same way, it’s a testament to Sofia Coppola’s confident directing and filmmaking that the beauty of On the Rocks still shines through its seemingly oppressive domesticity.

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