Review: Murray is magic in understated 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's latest stars Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as a father-daughter duo exploring their issues in a roundabout way

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Sofia Coppola is at her best when making small-seeming films about big issues, and "On the Rocks" fits that billing.

This charmer skates along and gets a sterling performance from Bill Murray as a dapper, worldly bon vivant, oozing with charisma earned over a lifetime. Beneath the surface of this light comedy there are bigger issues at play, including marital fidelity, father-daughter relationships, life-career balance and finding happiness in the life we choose for ourselves. 

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in "On the Rocks."

Rashida Jones plays Laura, a New York author and mother of two, who is married to Dean (Marlon Wayans). Laura is facing a bout of writer's block, and her mind is occupied with thoughts that Dean, who is perpetually working late hours and off on business trips with his attractive co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick), is cheating on her. And Laura's day-to-day routine of taking her kids to school and listening to the one-sided bloviating of fellow school mom Vanessa (Jenny Slate, hilarious) has her feeling like she's living her own version of Groundhog Day.

Enter Laura's father Felix (Murray), an expensive art dealer just back from his latest trip to Europe, who drops in on her world and takes over with his own brand of smothering love. Felix has lavish taste and knows every doorman and concierge in New York, and he treats the city like his own personal playground.

Murray plays Felix with an effortless grace, and the character trades on the stories we've all heard about Murray crashing wedding receptions and living the life as the wry center of the party that is his life. Yet Murray's eyes hint at a weary sadness just below the surface of the image he portrays to the world. It's the best role he's had in years. 

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in "On the Rocks."

Felix feeds into his daughter's feelings of jealousy and suspicion, and ratchets them up by having Dean followed. "On the Rocks" becomes a sort of caper as Laura and Felix turn amateur spies trying to catch Dean in the act, and along the way explore the roots of the rockiness in their own relationship. 

It's easy to read into the relationship between Laura and Felix as a reflection of Coppola's relationship with her father, Detroit-born filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, whom she certainly looked up to as a cosmopolitan figure who knew everyone in every room and to whom no doors were closed. Coppola's underrated 2010 film "Somewhere," with Elle Fanning as the daughter of a movie star (played by Stephen Dorff) who is dragged around to hotels around the world while her father works, had similar autobiographical parallels to Coppola's life, or at least what we would perceive her life to be from the outside looking in. 

Murray and Coppola, who previously teamed on "Lost in Translation," are magic together, and there's at least one classic scene here that belongs on Murray's all-time highlight reel. And Jones — as understated as she needs to be so Murray can steal the show — does solid work, and her and Murray are a likable, believable father-daughter duo. 

"On the Rocks" has an easygoing appeal and a light, fun vibe that makes it go down smoothly. Its strength is in the way it takes on heavy topics without ever feeling like it's going down that path. Like a strong drink, it sneaks up on you.


'On the Rocks'


Rated R: for some language/sexual references

Running time: 97 minutes

At Ford Wyoming Drive-In beginning Friday, in theaters Oct. 9, on AppleTV+ Oct. 23