Moving Forward, Looking Backward
November 10, 2020
Sofia Coppola's latest and Yes, God, Yes, Karen Maine's smart and funny directing debut
Laura, who spends so much time alone (her closest friend that we see is a talkative parent, played by Jenny Slate, at her kid’s school), can’t help but stew in doubt. Supposition is a great distraction from writing. What if the peak of her creativity is long behind her? And what if Dean is so preoccupied not only because of work obligations but also because he is possibly having an affair? The writing thing is perhaps all in Laura’s head, and she knows it — who in this profession isn’t overcome with that thought regularly? But the affair thing won't escape her mind. While unpacking one of Dean's travel bags one afternoon, she finds a woman's toiletry bag among his clothes. She later discovers it belongs to Fiona (Jessica Henwick), a fetching co-worker who Dean, without hesitating, calls "Fifi." Without skipping a beat, he says it was in there because she couldn’t fit it into her suitcase. You believe him; maybe it really is nothing.
When Laura confides in her father, impish millionaire art dealer Felix (Bill Murray), though, he’s immediately convinced that Dean is indeed being unfaithful. He knows how men are! (And he’s no stranger to extramarital affairs, either: the big one he had when Laura was a little girl almost destroyed their family.) Felix proposes that he and Laura do something akin to detective work; they’ll tail Dean for a night in Felix’s vintage red convertible, making fun pit-stops along the way, and see if they manage to uncover anything. Laura at first balks at Felix’s eagerness about the whole situation. “This is my life, and it might be falling apart!” she reminds her father. But she gives in.
Watching On the Rocks, one might wonder almost unavoidably how much of it culls inspiration from real life. Coppola, famously, is also a successful New York City-based writer with a larger-than-life father. “Do you really have to make such an entrance everywhere you go?” Laura asks Felix after finding him serenading a group of receptive strangers during one outing. The movie feels personal, a little like the way Lost in Translation (2003) (through which Coppola channeled troubles from her early, short-lived marriage to Spike Jonze) did, although it doesn’t have its exact same brand of melancholy. That movie homed in on a young woman who felt like she was drifting, unsure of what to do with herself. On the Rocks, by contrast, zeroes in on a protagonist who has mostly achieved everything she has long thought she wanted but has gotten to a point where she can't help but fret over losing her grasp on "having it all." It’s exacerbated by familiar feelings that she is not as cool or desirable as she used to be. An array of stylish baggy band T-shirts, with the names of the Beastie Boys and Run DMC plastered across their chests, seem sartorial reminders of how Laura might, as she approaches middle age, increasingly hunger for a past when things felt more possible — when there was something ahead of her worth waiting for.
Although it might sound heavy, On the Rocks is still Coppola’s most nonchalant, straightforwardly entertaining movie. For most of its length it resembles a caper movie, built on a charming rapport between two actors at the top of their game. Murray, in garrulous showboat mode, is delightful — you think first how much you missed him (Murray hasn’t had a leading role of this caliber in a movie since 2015, unless you count his position in the 2019 ensemble zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die), then think how this might be one of his best performances. You revel in how much a good time it can be when Murray really clicks with a role, and when a director uses him well; he seems like he wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here, and Coppola indulges him.
Jones is the force that stabilizes the film — the person who makes breeziness impossible. While it’s a lot of fun to spend this many days and nights with Murray, who’s doing hamminess without strain, it never leaves us that this is someone’s personal crisis being treated like something of a game by his jaunty character — a man who approaches
emotional sincerity like an allergen. There comes a potent moment in the movie when Laura puts her marital anxieties on the backburner to bring her frustrations with her father to the fore; while the two have a playful dynamic most of the movie, the hurt of days past still undergirds nearly everything they do together. Because she's so acutely familiar with how his mistakes have had a ripple effect on her and her immediate family's lives, it adds to Laura's
unease over Dean's possible adultery. She doesn’t want her kids to go through what she has, and part of the discord between her and Felix and the adventure he wants to make happen has to do with the fact that he not only doesn't understand this — it doesn't even cross his mind.
Jones, also giving one of her finest performances, is easy to empathize with as a woman at a crossroads, regardless of whether the more destructive crises she worries are coming to play are imaginary. Coppola’s realization of Laura’s malaise is conclusive enough that the quieter moments in the movie — where Laura is alone, dwelling in overthought — are as revelatory as more confessional stretches of dialogue. It’s interesting to see Jones, who usually plays the drily funny straight man in comedies, portray someone in a state of gray. She's too much in internal chaos to play along too eagerly.
Plenty of the restlessness in On the Rocks could be reduced to "rich people problems"; it wouldn't be wrong to conclude that the movie, released during a moment when the gap between the haves-and-the-have-nots has been widened by a global pandemic and other dysfunctions, is a little frivolous. But On the Rocks felt soothing the afternoon I watched it. In addition to beautifully photographing a pre-pandemic world, it gives us an engaging, emotionally wrought narrative and lets us savor a couple of likable performers doing great work. Sometimes it’s nice when a movie is low-stakes but not throwaway.
Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in On the Rocks.
so light that it breezes by. Laura (Rashida Jones), a successful writer nearing 40, has been feeling stuck in a rut lately; she’s unsure whether her anxieties are all in her head or if there's credence to them. Her latest book is slated to come out soon, but she’s regretting having sold it before writing it — when Laura sits in her office in the afternoons, she glassily gazes at a blank Pages document and doesn't dare dirty it with words. No inspiration strikes her at night — the period that has in the past dependably let the creative juices flow — either. Her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), with whom she has two children, recently started a business, which is growing so quickly that there goes not a week where he isn’t at some point away making a deal. While he’s professionally thriving, she feels
n the Rocks, released late last month on AppleTV+, is Sofia Coppola’s lightest, most effortlessly enjoyable movie so far — but that isn’t to say it’s
et at the turn of the millennium, Yes, God, Yes, a solid Bildungsroman that debuted on Netflix last month, stars Natalia Dyer as Alice, a Catholic-school girl trying to navigate her growing sexual curiosity against a
backdrop of near-constant abstinence talk. It's a smart and funny movie (it's the directorial debut from Karen Maine) about religious disillusionment and how it tends to crash into one's coming of age; the film is distinguishable for its well-realized recreation of the AOL chatroom era and its lead performance. Dyer, doing excellent work, efficiently captures the inner tug of war of long-internalized prudishness and a growing interest in something she has for so long been taught to treat disgracefully.
This Catholic milieu and how its confusing values affect people are not universalities. But what is fairly ubiquitous, and what the movie shrewdly portrays, is the youthful feeling that your present will be your present forever, and the landmark moment when that feeling starts to lose its power. So many coming-of-age movies find their protagonist moving into a new phase of life after experiencing something that alters them. That, too, is the case here. But what sets Yes, God, Yes apart is the additional idea that with this new phase of life will come what could amount to a complete reset for Alice. When she begins to distinguish what she genuinely believes in versus what she has been taught she should believe in to an extreme and oppressive degree, what of her old self will remain? She is en route to coming of age and into her own.
On the Rocks: B+
Yes, God, Yes: B