In her new film “On the Rocks” — premiering at the New York Film Festival on its way to AppleTV+ in October — writer-director Sofia Coppola may well have crafted the quintessential Bill Murray role. But this is a father-daughter story, and the daughter is no less important; it helps, obviously, that both Coppola and co-lead Rashida Jones know a thing or two about larger-than-life dads, but it also matters that Jones is enough of a skilled actor and comic that she more than holds her own opposite the equally larger-than-life Murray.
Murray’s Felix is an old-school charmer, a deadpan wit, and a bon vivant, but he’s also an adoring father and grandfather, and he’s capable of accessing and acknowledging regret and loss. It would be a banquet for any actor, but the character has been so crafted for this particular performer that one suspects we will think of Murray’s work here alongside the likes of Bette Davis in “All About Eve.” It’s the kind of turn that encapsulates what an actor does best, dovetailed with audiences’ perceptions of what that actor is really like.
But “On the Rocks” is not Felix’s story: It’s about his daughter Laura (Jones), whose once-passionate marriage to Dean (Marlon Wayans) has become a day-to-day grind of raising two young daughters, scheduling vacations and ballet classes, and a walloping case of writer’s block as Laura attempts to start a new book. When Dean starts spending more time at the office and traveling for work, and clues that indicate infidelity start popping up — he’s got a gorgeous assistant named Fiona (Jessica Henwick, “Iron Fist”), whose toiletry case winds up in Dean’s suitcase — Laura grows suspicious.
When she airs those suspicions to Felix, of course, he goes into red alert. Having cheated on Laura’s mother (and being the kind of serial flirt who has a charming opening line for seemingly every woman he encounters) Felix immediately assumes the worst. To be fair, Felix’s charm extends to men as well; the way he talks two New York policemen into forgiving him for a moving violation and then giving his car a push is one for the ages.
Felix begins making inquiries about Dean’s comings and goings and even recruits Laura to join him on stakeouts. (He’s the kind of guy who brings caviar as a snack while spying.) But as Laura contemplates whether or not her husband is unfaithful, she also has to examine her own life, her priorities, and her relationship with her father.
Laura lives in the upscale Manhattan we know from Woody Allen and Whit Stillman movies; Coppola keeps the literary references to a minimum, but Felix’s career as an art dealer allows for some Cy Twombly and David Hockney name-drops. Even if this is a somewhat familiar brand of lifestyle porn, it’s not one we usually get to see populated by people of color; in the same way that HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” puts Black characters front-and-center in familiar horror and adventure tropes, this is the movie version of New York City (rendered with a glorious sheen by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola’s “The Beguiled”) with a cast of faces that more honestly reflects the real city — with the understanding, of course, that representation is not the same as revolution.
“On the Rocks” displays Coppola’s gift for light comedy, and not just because of Murray; Jones’s sense of timing is precise and often devastating, and Jenny Slate pops in periodically, and hilariously, as a fellow school mom in a perpetual monologue about her love life. And it’s a film that finds perfect little moments between the sparkling dialogue, whether it’s Laura obsessively tidying her writing desk as a way to procrastinate or a slo-mo shot of a single tear falling into a martini as Chet Baker laments “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”
In the grander scheme of Coppola’s career, this qualifies as another tale of attractive rich people and their problems, but it’s admittedly exciting to see her make a film about a wife and mother who leaves her apartment. After a filmography so frequently focused on the lives of cloistered women — as far back as “Life Without Zoe” and as recently as “The Beguiled” — it feels like a paradigm shift when the auteur allows Laura to move freely about the city.
Jones and Murray (who previously teamed on Coppola’s “A Very Murray Christmas” special) achieve the kind of effortless rapport that spawns “I want them to go solve mysteries” memes, and the key ingredient of that chemistry is that Jones never allows Murray to steal the show.