Sofia Coppola’s “On The Rocks” (2020)

Notable Festivals: New York Film Festival

For twenty years, director Sofia Coppola has endeavored to assert her artistic voice out from under the monolithic shadow cast by her father, revered New Hollywood figurehead Francis Ford Coppola. She has largely succeeded, crafting her own distinct legacy through a collection of assured and distinctive feature films. While she regularly drew inspiration from her own life — particularly, the pitfalls of fame and celebrity as experienced by an artist who spent her formative years as a glamorous socialite — she had yet to focus her lens on her relationship with the person who made her charmed life possible. The making of her seventh feature, 2020’s ON THE ROCKS, would prove a suitable opportunity as a kind of love letter to father Francis, structured as a comic caper with a light, elegant touch. Produced by Coppola and her creative partner Youree Henley as the first picture in an agreement between indie powerhouse A24 and tech titan Apple to produce a slate of original films for the latter’s upstart streaming service, ON THE ROCKS doesn’t evolve Coppola’s voice so much as refine it, giving us added insight into the director’s unique storytelling sensibilities.

Indeed, ON THE ROCKS positions itself as more of a refreshing confection than a nourishing meal — a cinematic amuse-bouche pursuant to its double-entendre title alluding to both boozy indulgence and relationships undergoing conflict. Coppola’s script centers on Laura, a busy woman whose glamorous Manhattan lifestyle is complicated by the need to balance her successful writing career with the unique and thankless demands of modern motherhood. Having previously appeared before Coppola’s cameras as a bummed-out bride in 2015’s A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, Rashida Jones takes center stage with a lived-in and authentic performance as a woman on the verge of forty whose material success in life masks a nagging self-doubt. ON THE ROCKS initially finds Laura in a vulnerable position, her career momentum seemingly having slowed while her husband’s is rocketing to the stratosphere. With Dean (Marlon Wayons) frequently away on business, the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood fall squarely on her, threatening to derail her delicate life/work balance entirely. The plot begins in earnest when Dean comes home drunk from a work party and initiates a midnight kiss as Laura lies sleeping, only to recoil when she turns to embrace him— almost as if he was expecting someone else. Despite a desire to stay above petty suspicion, Laura can’t help but grow consumed by doubts about Dean’s faithfulness, especially in light of long nights at the office spent in the company of his flirty young colleague, Fiona (Jessica Henwick). 

Against her better judgment, Laura reveals her marital misgivings to her father, Felix, a shameless flirt and worldly connoisseur of life’s finer things. Though they enjoy a fairly warm back-and-forth,  an undercurrent of strain keeps their relationship at arm’s length — lingering scars from Felix’s thinly-veiled infidelity to Laura’s mother during her youth. It takes a cheater to know one, judging by how quickly Felix assumes Dean’s strange behavior to be a byproduct of his own unfaithfulness. Though Laura is initially wary of Felix’s claims — a writer wanting to resist the oldest cliche in the book, perhaps — she can’t help but be swayed by the clues he pieces together. So begins Coppola’s caper, with father and daughter teaming up to get to the bottom of this mystery, first by rooting through Dean’s text history and then tailing him through crosstown traffic. They even go so far as to follow him to Mexico, where Dean’s beachside business trip threatens to blossom into a romantic rendezvous with Fiona… or so they feverishly speculate.

Though the light touch of Coppola’s plotting suggests a rather scant story, her characterization and the cast’s performances provide ON THE ROCKS with a great deal of nuance and depth. Jones has the unenviable task of standing in for Coppola herself — a fictionalized avatar through which to mount a meditation on the difficulties of asserting oneself against the intimidating legacy of one’s parents. Thankfully, Jones’ familiarity with Coppola is extensive; in addition to their aforementioned collaboration on A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, Jones once played an important part in Coppola’s artistic development, preceding Scarlett Johansson in breathing life into the role of Charlotte while workshopping an early draft of the screenplay for LOST IN TRANSLATION during an acting class (1). For his part, Murray settles back quite effortlessly into his groove with Coppola, harnessing the easygoing charisma that gave LOST IN TRANSLATION and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS their charm. His Felix isn’t a one-to-one replica of father Francis, but he does share the same sort of Continental, “Man Of The World” sophistication that distinguishes the elder Coppola. The source of Felix’s wealth is never revealed — indeed, he has or had no apparent profession to speak of — leaving “family money” as the most likely answer, which he clearly is enjoying holding on to until it inevitably passes to Laura. He dresses and flirts like a man without a care in the world precisely because he has yet to have one, but even his fine scarves can’t veil the growing regret he feels about the scars left behind by his inability to commit to being a family man.

Wayans’ performance as Dean suggests a similar fate, giving Laura and Felix’s investigation its urgency and the story its stakes. In contrast to Felix, Dean is a dyed-in-the-wool career man who’s earned every dollar he’s made through hard work. He’s emblematic of a certain type of guy that’s ubiquitous throughout the modern white-collar economy: the stylish, slim-suited and Peloton-framed Salesforce bro speaking entirely in corporate buzzwords. ON THE ROCKS finds his company undergoing a period of dramatic growth, requiring his constant presence both at the office and on the road. Though he effortlessly projects the image of the perfect husband and father, his inability to concentrate on the needs of his marriage for too long fixes his characterization — at least from Laura’s point of view — onto a very one-dimensional plane. As the story unfolds, however, Dean reveals himself to be quite sympathetic indeed; his ambitions stem from a place of profound inadequacy, having conflated happiness with material success. This aspect is where ON THE ROCKS reveals the heart of its story: in essence, a subversion of the “suspicious spouse” tropes that have long figured in Hollywood comedies to demonstrate how easily we can lose sight of the Big, Important Things in the confusing and complicated sweep of our day-to-day lives — and the sometimes-contrived, near-Herculean effort it takes to reaffirm those fundamental forces that shape and clarify our existence.

After their brilliant collaboration on THE BEGUILED, Coppola reteams with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd to pursue a natural elegance with an unadorned, simple aesthetic— “beautifully simple”, as Le Sourd would later articulate in an article with Moviemaker Magazine. “Deceptively simple” might be a better description of ON THE ROCKS’ 35mm 1.85:1 frame, which tends to emphasize functional coverage over conspicuously-artistic compositions. Befitting a story that’s largely conversational, Coppola and Le Sourd routinely employ medium two-shots that frame the top half of characters, saving closer setups for when nuance is critical. Production would occur in New York City throughout June of 2019, but the filmmakers’ focus on a human-oriented scale precludes a need for wide establishing shots of Manhattan landmarks. One could be forgiven for thinking this approach would fail in realizing a sense of place, but the actual result is that kind of daily grind, block-by-block-level impression of place that a local New Yorker would have. The shallow depth of field so characteristic of Coppola’s overarching aesthetic style facilitates this conceit, allowing her characters to meld into the very fabric of the city around them. Her quiet confidence echoes in the deliberate nature of the camerawork, which favors static setups and the occasional pan or tilt (if the characters deign to move beyond the bounds of the frame). There is one exception to the rule: a light-hearted car chase in Felix’s lipstick-red Alfa Romeo through the empty streets of after-hours SoHo. The sudden acceleration invigorates ON THE ROCKS at its midway point, capturing Laura and Felix’s breathless delight at an all-too-rare instance of mischief-making (2).

Though the palette cultivated by Coppola and Le Sourd favors cool hues and muted neutrals, color figures quite prominently as a visual storytelling device. A desaturated, low-contrast look establishes Laura’s status quo by minimizing the prevalence of shadows. With the spires of Manhattan greedily drinking up the direct sunlight, Laura moves through perpetual shade— the diffuse daylight eliminates shadows in a manner that suggests there’s no intrigue in Laura’s life anymore; nowhere to hide from the existential uncertainty that complicates her seemingly “perfect” life (2). In contrast, the image grows more dynamic when Laura and Felix venture to Mexico: the sunlight shines warm and free, stretching the shadows across the beach (2). The plum red of restaurant walls and the canary yellow of Laura’s cocktail dress offer a sharp rebuke to the slate and brick environs of New York, becoming the chromatic equivalent to the kineticism of the Alfa Romeo chase. It’s no accident that these bursts of concentrated color occur at key moments with Felix— they are deliberate signifiers that highlight the importance of this particular father-daughter relationship in Laura’s dramatic trajectory (2).

ON THE ROCKS continues Coppola’s commitment to photochemical film, with the medium once again asserting itself as the appropriate choice for her artistic intentions. Like THE BEGUILED before it, a great deal of the action occurs in the dark, necessitating additional layers of technical consideration when it comes to the relationship between lighting and camera. Where previously entire city blocks would have to be lit in order to achieve the desired exposure — a costly and time-consuming undertaking — the filmmakers found themselves benefitting from the city’s relatively-recent transition to LED street lamps, which served to raise the overall ambient light levels. Combined with the wide latitude and reduced grain field of Kodak’s 500T and 200T stocks, as well as the evergreen ability to push the film in the lab, Coppola and Le Sourd found they could achieve an ease of exposure comparable to digital cameras like the Sony Venice. A set of Panavision Super Speed MKII and Ultra Speed lenses complete ON THE ROCKS’ soft, low-contrast look, putting a sophisticated polish on Coppola’s well-established aesthetic.

Indeed, ON THE ROCKS demonstrates Coppola operating entirely in her comfort zone, enjoying the creative freedoms afforded by a streaming service leveraging the popularity of her artistic persona in a bid to turn her audience into active subscribers. The return of key creative partners is crucial in this regard, beginning with brother Roman serving as executive producer alongside Fred Roos, who actively produced most of father Francis’ work. Frequent production designer Anne Ross goes to great lengths to soften New York’s rough edges with a dim, romantic atmosphere — a prime example being the repeat appearance of Bemelmans Bar, the seductive and high-class watering hole in the lobby of the Hotel Carlyle, previously a main location in A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS. Editor Sarah Flack’s deliberate, unhurried pacing complements Ross’ use of leisure and culture as an anchoring force in these characters’ lives. The French rock band Phoenix, fronted by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars, delivers their third score for the director: an upbeat, yet subdued, suite of cues that reach for an electric ambience in lieu of distinct melodies or themes. A wide-ranging mix of needledrops further reinforce the idea of Coppola’s narratives as manifestations of her own self— musical windows into the way she sees the world. Electronic and French pop songs are positioned against jazzy torch standards, classical piano arrangements, and even the melancholic whimsy of a Chet Baker ballad, suggesting a collision between youthful energy and the sedate sophistication of New York’s moneyed class. This is arguably where Laura and Coppola’s wavelengths overlap most completely, the pre-existing tracks further shading her story about asserting one’s identity out from under a smothering lineage and a domineering environment.

Befitting her own stage in life as a middle-aged artist, wife and mother, the ethereal mystique that defines Coppola’s leading ladies is manifest in Laura as a fading force, subsumed to the rigorous and thankless demands of motherhood and housekeeping. The effect is compounded by the sagging momentum of her writing career; more and more, she’s having to define herself in relation to the success of others instead of her own. As absurd as it is to team up with her father to stake out or investigate her husband’s shady whereabouts, the central mystery serves to rejuvenate her own enigmatic qualities. Though her rational side can never quite take the endeavor as seriously as Felix does, Laura can’t help but surprise herself along the way; she’s emboldened by this sudden dash of spice in her life, allowing herself to believe she can ultimately avoid conforming to the burned-out contours of middle-aged domesticity. A fun running joke with Jenny Slate as a fellow mom who can’t stop blabbing about her ill-advised conquests in the kindergarten drop-off line serves to contrast with Laura’s perceived lack of mystique, although we can’t help but join Laura in pitying the poor girl’s utter inability to mature into a responsible person.

Though she often catches flack for writing stories about cloistered worlds defined by luxury and privilege, there is surprisingly little discussion about Coppola’s onscreen exploration of architecture and how it shapes her silver-spooned protagonists’ lived experience. The homogenous suburban sprawl of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES alienates the Lisbon sisters from everyone except themselves, drawing them ever tighter into a kamikaze spiral of malaise and discontent. LOST IN TRANSLATION’s Park Hyatt Hotel serves as a cozy cocoon nurturing the blossoming love between a young married woman and a middle-aged has-been movie star just before they flutter back out into the world as self-realized butterflies. The ornate halls of Versailles Palace become nothing but a gilded cage for MARIE ANTOINETTE’s eponymous royal, while SOMEWHERE depicts LA’s storied Chateau Marmont hotel as both a refuge from and facilitator for a burned-out actor’s inherent vice. THE BLING RING juxtaposes stucco McMansions against glass hillside homes to demonstrate gradations of privilege and the all-consuming covetousness that can breed. A decrepit Antebellum mansion perverts the architecture of domesticity to stage THE BEGUILED’s battle of the sexes. With ON THE ROCKS, Coppola uses the backdrop of Manhattan’s SoHo and Tribeca neighborhoods — tony enclaves defined less and less by tastemaking artists and more by their patrons — to underscore a professional creative’s identity crisis. 

Surrounded by the polished grit of this Basquiat Disneyland, invaded by gentrifiers and wealthy pretenders who want to live the Art Life without that pesky “starving” business, Laura’s creative stagnancy is the logical endpoint of her slow decline from producer to consumer. Candlelit booths in cozy bars, industrial lofts with designer finishes, and the burnished leather backseat of Felix’s town car are bubbles of privilege that further fuel Laura’s discontent, encouraging talk of Cartier watches and fancy private schools instead of anything truly substantial or creatively nourishing. Through it all, an interesting subtext reveals itself, putting a finer point on Coppola’s portraits of wealth and privilege as insightful critique. As ON THE ROCKS unfolds, one gets the distinct impression that financial security is growing ever more elusive — even for those we’d readily consider to be “well-off”. Be it inflation or widening wealth inequality, the dollar simply doesn’t travel as far as it used to. Laura clearly comes from money: she’s chauffeured around town by her father’s longtime driver, her work hours are her own, and she enjoys a sizable apartment with ample size within a city where space is the hottest of commodities. Conspicuously absent, however, is a nanny. One would expect a family of Laura’s financial strata to have one on hand, but the duties fall squarely on her. The strain also manifests itself in her marriage to Dean, whereby Dean’s insecurity about providing for a woman apparently accustomed to so much already compels him to put in long hours at the office so he can fortify their marriage with material goods instead of what she really wants: his simple presence as a husband and father. As absurd as Laura and Felix’s vigilante stakeouts are, the reasons for Laura and Dean’s malaise are arguably even more nonsensical, having fallen prey to the attendant insanities of life in the throes of late-stage capitalism.

Released in October of 2020 with a premiere at the New York Film Festival, ON THE ROCKS would join the handful of films experimenting with unconventional distribution models in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As A24’s first joint venture with Apple TV+, Coppola’s film was always bound for the tech giant’s nascent streaming service following a limited theatrical release, but the strategy couldn’t help but resemble the reactionary swings other studios were making in a bid to recoup their investments without the windfall of box office revenue. Interestingly enough, the minimization of the theatrical window might have spurred on the film’s modest success, encouraging audiences to take a chance on the film by lowering the cost of entry and boosting the ease of access. To wit, ON THE ROCKS would enjoy some of the warmest critical notices of Coppola’s career, arguably coasting off our collective desire for some lighthearted escapism during troubling times. While David Sims of The Atlantic would find himself wanting by Coppola’s threadbare plot, he was ultimately won over by its “rush of unintentional catharsis and pure diversion”. Critics mostly focused on Murray’s undeniable charm, but they also were quick to articulate the inherent charm of Coppola’s dreamy storytelling voice as applied to the form factor of the classic screwball comedy. Polygon’s Jesse Hassenger would put it most poignantly with his succinct takeaway: “for this lonely moment, ON THE ROCKS feels right”. 

Indeed, ON THE ROCKS is the kind of film that Coppola could only make at this exact moment in her career, replete with mature insights into that nebulous phase of life we call “happily ever after”: keeping the spark of love & marriage alive amidst the long slog of business meetings, school drop-offs, and all the attendant uncertainties of middle age. Coppola’s ability to imbue the slightest of narratives with profound depth is a feature, not a bug; a key signifier of her voice that, much like Laura does with Felix, allows her to assert herself out from under the intimidating weight of the preceding generation’s achievements. ON THE ROCKS reads like the clearest window into the personal life of a fairly private artist, using Coppola’s evocative and enigmatic storytelling to convey, arguably, the thesis for her entire career: that the legacy of our parents doesn’t have to define our own.

ON THE ROCKS is currently streaming on Apple TV+

Credits:

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley

Executive Produced by: Roman Coppola, Fred Roos, Mitch Glazer

Director of Photography: Philippe Le Sourd

Production Designer: Anne Ross

Edited by: Sarah Flack

Music by: Phoenix

References:

IMDB Trivia Page

Beyl, Cameron. “The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sofia Coppola: Chapter 12: Cinematography: Sofia Coppola’s Minimalist Mystique” (p. 189-204). Publishing in 2023. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, United Kingdom

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