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Rashida Jones and Bill Murray star in Sofia Coppola's On The Rocks.

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  • On the Rocks
  • Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
  • Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray and Marlon Wayans
  • Classification R; 96 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars

In 2014, the Toronto International Film Festival dedicated the entire second day of its run to a single actor: Bill Murray. The festival’s Lightbox theatre hosted free screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, fans entered a contest to win a trip to the Los Angeles premiere of Murray’s then-new film St. Vincent, and the man himself even made an appearance, trading his baseline faux-smug shtick for something approaching genuine appreciativeness. Despite the whole event being a Harvey Weinstein-orchestrated PR stunt for St. Vincent, Bill Murray Day turned out to be the highlight of the festival, and likely many attendees' entire year.

Murray has a habit of doing that – elevating lacklustre or even crass endeavours to a level of bubbly excitement. Thanks to his deadpan delivery, his overwhelming likeability, his effortless essence of fizzy cool, the actor has made bearable Hollywood’s most superficial projects. I won’t list them all, because for a performer who has maintained a myth of extreme pickiness, he sure has signed on to a lot of wispy, inessential affairs. Including, regrettably, On the Rocks.

On paper, the new film makes perfect sense. For Murray and for everyone else. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the father-daughter comedy offers the actor a chance to reteam with his Lost in Translation collaborator, who two decades ago nearly helped him secure the one missing puzzle piece of his career (an Academy Award) and effectively finished the job that Wes Anderson started in terms of reinventing the dramatic Bill Murray persona. With the actor and the filmmaker now older and wiser, a reunion is an obvious win for both. Yet it is only Murray who emerges from On the Rocks with the potency of a stiff drink.

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Murray plays an art dealer who helps his daughter, played by Jones, investigate whether her husband is cheating.

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Telling a sitcom-simple story with a frustrating lack of emotional and narrative depth, Coppola has produced a distressingly disposable film. Her characters are thin, her central conflict is shallow, and there is an underlying blindness to class privilege that starts off curiously and innocuously enough but becomes glaring and unbearable as the film wears on. But, yes, Murray is great. He kind of has to be.

Cast as Felix, a high-flying art dealer who, bored and generally without responsibilities, decides to help his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) investigate whether her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her, Murray is playing an idealized version of himself. Felix might be an incurable cad who stepped out on Laura’s mom and caused all sorts of heartache back in the day, but his daughter, and the audience, cannot help but fall for his smooth sense of mischief. Imagine Lost in Translation’s movie star Bob Harris, but less sad, somehow wealthier and just as libidinous.

The role would simply not work with any other actor, which is a testament to Murray’s considerable charms and an indictment of Coppola’s otherwise feather-light feature. Not that producing a “light” movie is cause for dismissal – done well, movies with low stakes and lower expectations can be immensely pleasurable diversions. Yet Coppola hasn’t done the necessary work here to make anyone care about any of her characters. You might want to hang around with Felix once the movie is over – if only because the man knows the maître d’s of every restaurant in New York and can talk his way out of any speeding ticket – but you won’t know who he is, other than some vague assemblage of the bits and pieces making up the myth of Murray.

The film exists in a New York City designed for, and exclusively inhabited by, the rich.

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You certainly won’t want to spend time with Laura. Despite Jones’s best efforts, her heroine never comes to life. We know that she’s a writer, but of what? Fiction? History? The politics of voting for Bernie Sanders while living in a fabulous Soho apartment? Coppola never bothers to tell us. Nor do we get a true glimpse into the marital tension ostensibly driving the film’s story. Dean remains a mere idea of a husband and father rather than an actual human being, and the push-pull that Laura is said to feel regarding her family and work feels like an experience perhaps teased from Coppola’s own life but left untouched.

Indeed, there seems to be quite a bit of real life bleeding into On the Rocks’s script, at least viewed from a distance. Laura’s father is a fabulously wealthy man in the arts who cannot maintain a romantic relationship for too long, just like Jones’s music-producing father, Quincy. Laura’s grandmother takes up residence in a massive country estate, similar to the property that I imagine Francis Ford Coppola walks around every weekend. And every single person is living a life of extreme, worry-free privilege – so much so that it is unclear whether Coppola is presenting her world matter-of-factly or with a wink.

The scene where Felix pulls out some caviar while seated in his cherry-red Alfa Romeo suggests the latter, but the largely straight-faced mood of the film – which presents a New York designed for, and exclusively inhabited by, the rich – suggests a strong detachment from irony. Watching Felix and Laura jaunt through a pre-COVID Manhattan only pushes a fall 2020 audience into a further state of have-not anxiety, slowly deflating the film’s intended buoyancy.

So, if you must celebrate Bill Murray Day this year, pour yourself a Suntory Whisky and watch Lost in Translation instead. And make that drink neat.

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On the Rocks opens in select Canadian theatres Oct. 2; it will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Oct. 23

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