Riding With Bill

Bill Murray drives the smooth comedy of director Sofia Coppola’s new Big Apple tonic for our troubled times

On the Rocks
Bill Murray, Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans
Directed by Sofia Coppola
R
In select theaters Oct. 2 (Available Oct. 23 on Apple + TV)

In trying to find out if her marriage really might be falling apart, a young New York woman reconnects with her father—who certainly has some experience in that area.

Director Sofia Coppola’s sparkling, stylish, smart new Big Apple comedy reunites her with Bill Murray, 17 years after their collaboration in Lost in Translation won her an Oscar (for writing) and him an acting nomination.

In On the Rocks, Rashida Jones plays Laura, a harried, 38-year-old mom and freelance writer raising her two young kids in a trendy SoHo apartment with hubby Dean (Marlon Wayans). Only Laura is doing most of the raising, while Dean spends days—and often nights—at his new start-up company, flying to meetings in far-off places, wooing new investors, going to dinners, celebrating at parties…and maybe doing something else.

She gets a bit suspicious when she finds a women’s toiletry kit in his open suitcase. Dean has a ready excuse, and it’s believable enough…

Felix (Bill Murray), Laura’s ne’er-do-well, bon vivant dad, offers to take her to lunch. He breezes up to her apartment door in a chauffeured sedan, rolls down the back window, and grins.

“Feel like hoppin’ in?” he asks.

Felix knows all about cheating husbands; his serial infidelities broke up his own marriage to Laura’s mother. He’s a world-traveling, roguish flirt, an irrepressible cad, a prankish playboy who loves women—and loves to be loved. And he’s convinced that Dean is cheating on Laura.

Can Felix and Laura catch him in the act?

Murray, who’s played almost everything in a career that began four decades ago, has nonetheless never before played a movie father, much less a grandfather. On the Rocks is somewhat new comedic ground for him, but he makes Felix feel like a natural progression, all the way back to the goofballs of Saturday Night Live, Stripes and Caddyshack, now just a bit older, a lot more worldly, certainly more wealthy, but just as incorrigibly puckish.

As Laura, Jones is terrific, with most of her performance funneled into her expressive face—as when we watch her elation subtly turn to deflation at a botched birthday surprise. Wayans, usually cast in broader comedic roles, shrewdly plays Dean as a straight-up, nice-guy, hard-working dad—to keep us, as well as Laura, guessing.

Felix obviously loves his daughter, and he also loves a good caper. Which is why they end up all over Manhattan, and later beyond, on their rolling surveillance mission—where, in slack moments, Felix imparts to Laura some of his not-so-enlightened observations on mating rituals, marriage, monogamy and the biology of attraction.

“The bangle is a reminder,” he says, admiring Laura’s bracelet, “that women were once men’s property.”

Felix’s property includes a collection of fine art and a bunch of celebrity friends—his mantle has photos of him playing golf with President Obama and chumming with Andy Warhol. He picks Laura up one evening in a vintage cherry-red Alfa Romeo convertible, which he stocks with champagne and caviar for a late-night reconnaissance mission as they race across the city to keep up with a taxi carrying Dean and his leggy assistant (Jessica Henwick). Felix seems to know everyone in New York—doormen, waitresses, maître d’s, even the cop who pulls them over for running a red light.

He charms the policeman and his partner into giving the convertible a push to get it re-started.

Filmed pre-pandemic on location in New York, On the Rocks—its title a double entendre to the fragile state of Laura’s marriage, as well as the copious drinks she and Felix consume in a variety of iconic nightspots—is also a paeon to the grandeur of Manhattan. (At one point, Felix treats Laura to ice cream at a restaurant “at Bogart’s table—where he proposed to Bacall.”) Coppola treats the city almost as a character itself, its buildings standing tall and proud, its profile majestic and sprawling, its lights twinkling like a panoply of urban fantasia.

Most of us can’t directly relate to Felix’s globetrotting world of fine art, celebrity pals and pricey Italian sports cars. But everyone can probably connect, in some way, when Laura tells him that her “life could just be falling apart.”

Especially right now.

A smooth comic elixir for our very troubled times, On the Rocks basically comes down to Bill Murray—aged like a fine wine—pulling up in a red sports car, asking you a simple question.

“Feel like hoppin’ in?”

Yes, yes, yes, we do!  

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