Why I Think the Critics Got It Wrong With Sofia Coppola’s ‘On The Rocks’

Is the film industry On The Rocks? Lizzy Yarwood discusses what she thinks the critics have missed in Sofia Coppola's latest flick.

WORDS Lizzy Yarwood

When I first started watching Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks I was inclined to chime in with the general reception of the film. There were moments when eyeballs seemed the appropriate response. Yet when I emerged from the film, I felt decidedly different from the main critical response and I feel that Coppola’s latest film deserves a second look. Despite reviews from The Guardian, New York Times and Robert Ebest claiming this as a light-hearted, albeit outed, sexist dad caper, I’d argue that On The Rocks is a meditation on the state of the film industry post-H**vey W***stein. 

On The Rocks, which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival this September, stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a young mother who reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York. Jones’ father is played by Bill Murray, who has previously worked with Coppola for the 2003 cult classic Lost in Translation, and together Laura and her father set out to discover if Laura’s husband is having an affair, a speculation encouraged by her father.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

The film satirises the romanticised Hollywood glamour by laying bare its sexist insides. Philippe Le Sourd’s glossy cinematography paints a silvery sheen over Laura’s life with her husband and children, which dissipates in the shots of Laura and her father in the dark, velvet, expensive clubs. She follows him to exclusive events where champagne flutes, plush decor and Dad’s ridiculing of their pomposity does not detract enough from his ridiculous sexism. His self-absorbed ruminations on the ‘nature’ of ‘women’ demonstrate the patriarchal fetishisation of women’s ‘pure emotions’ and it’s easy to understand how most viewers’ hackles have been raised by his perspectives. Laura says nothing to the concierge and lets her father take control of the situation, comfortable and accustomed as he is to these elite spaces. Raised eyebrows are the only reaction to her dad’s greasy flirting with the waiter. These elements are so blatant the film moves from the uncomfortable into the absurd, which is encapsulated during a slow-motion fall of Laura’s teardrop into her drink one evening. Coppola intentionally ruins this emotionally charged moment by inserting a stock image into a poignant scene in order to point out that what makes industries ‘glamorous’ is inextricably linked to their sexist structures and hollow inside, from the chivalry to the exclusivity, expense and mass complicity. 

Coppola points out that what makes industries ‘glamorous’ is inextricably linked to their sexist structures and hollow inside, from the chivalry to the exclusivity, expense and mass complicity.

Coppola also indicts the immunity one can enjoy within the film industry when you know the ‘right’ people. The most striking example of this is the altercation-turned-catch-up between Dad and a policeman. The stern demeanour of the officers, who stop Dad’s bright red car and interrupt his and Laura’s spying adventure, transforms into affability when Dad asks about the officer’s father and reveals their long-standing friendship. (It helps that Bill Murray is a stalwart of the film industry and also not afraid to question his own privilege as an actor in this film.) Soon Laura and Dad are on their merry way, no questions asked. This short but memorable scene alludes to the violence and prejudiced nature of Hollywood, as well as the systemic corruption within the US (and other Western countries). In a further sinister episode, Dad moves Laura into some bushes to insinuate a lovers’ tryst taking place in order for security persons to leave them alone. The implication that incestuous sexual relations is a form of protection is particularly disturbing and speaks to the power dynamics that have led to abuse within the film industry. Dad does not see anything wrong with this pretence and both Laura and the audience are pulled along in the current of complicity and in Dad’s own games. 

Image courtesy of Apple TV and A24

The question of agency looms throughout On The Rocks. Small actions such as Dad ordering Laura’s drink and calling her ‘kiddo’ asserts Dad as an authority figure even as it’s clear Laura has led her own life and does not need him. Murray’s reappearing lexicon from Lost In Translation also gestures towards a reflection on Coppola’s own journey through films. His cheeky chappy character and career success have enabled him to eschew responsibility and a moral compass for his adult life. Framing Laura and his trip to Mexico as his fatherly duty to protect his daughter and to check up on an errant son-in-law pushes her into complying even as her reservations and uncertainty about her husband’s supposed infidelity grow. When it transpires that her father is also hoping to secure an art sale with someone who lives there it becomes clear that Dad is still trying to push his own intentions onto his daughter, just as film patriarchs continue to abuse their positions. 

Laura refuses to go along with him at the end, but the ending is ambivalent and the possibility of her reconciling with him is very much present. We are left to contemplate the film and the film industry more widely: will we be seduced by a clinking whisky on the rocks and a romping adventure or can we use this vision of an industry cracking apart on the rocks to question what is changing and what is still stuck in its old ways?

See ‘On The Rocks’ in selected cinemas now, or watch on Apple TV from 23rd October.

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