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Film Review: ‘On the Rocks’ is a Perfect Vehicle for Bill Murray and a Love Letter to New York City

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in “On The Rocks,” premiering October 23 on Apple TV+.
“On The Rocks” Courtesy of Apple TV+

There is an element of On the Rocks that takes on an added significance during our current times. Surely, filmmaker Sofia Coppola had no idea the world would more or less come to a halt in the months following her production of this movie, but watching it now, it’s impossible not to notice the New York City she’s captured. Previously, it would just seem like the Manhattan we all know and love/hate/have a love-hate relationship with. Now, it’s inadvertently become a love letter to a city that’s temporarily gone on hiatus. Until it comes back, getting to see it in Coppola’s flick, thriving in its own bustling and busy way, makes an already wonderful film into something even better.

On the Rocks is more than a love letter to New York City, as it’s also a brilliant showcase and vehicle for Bill Murray. Given one of his best roles to date, he’s having an absolute blast. If you could design a part for Murray in a lab, this would likely resemble what you came up with. Once upon a time, this was what the Academy had created Best Supporting Actor for. Oscar voters don’t always go for this sort of aces comedic role anymore, but they certainly should take notice again for what he’s doing in partnership with Coppola.

To be sure, New York is its own character, in a way that Woody Allen used to consistently utilize in his work. Coppola has taken a bit of Allen’s former magic dust and sprinkled it on her own style here, resulting in something both breezy and slight, but also filled to the brim with a low-key melancholy. She may not hit home with the theme quite as much as something like Lost in Translation (her best work), but this is not only her most accessible, but also her most pleasant effort. It’s almost impossible to not watch this one and smile for much of its peppy running time.

“On The Rocks” Courtesy of Apple TV+

When they got married, Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) were the sort of newlyweds who would sneak off to skinny dip. Fast forward a few years and two children have dimmed that spark. When a few peculiar things crop upon Dean’s return from a business trip, Laura starts to wonder if he might be having an affair. He and his co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick) are close, but are they too close? Laura is willing to brush it off, but when she mentions it to her wealthy playboy father Felix (Murray), he has a far different take.

Running around with Felix, Laura does some light investigations of her husband. Some things suggest nothing is up, while others do. She’s at a loss, though this all just spurs Felix on more. He has nothing against Dean, but clearly is in his daughter’s corner. As they venture around the city, they connect and re-connect in a way that brings new understandings.

Bill Murray has rarely been better than he is here. Let loose on a larger than life persona that vaguely resembles his own, he’s completely at ease. Whether he’s sleuthing with Laura, playing with his grandchildren, or making any number of grand statements about women, he’s the older relative you all know and love, even if you don’t always agree with him. Everyone has a grandfather or an uncle like this, and often, he’s the person who’s your favorite family member. Coppola leans into this, and so does Murray. Even if you think he’s a bit of a relic, he’s having so much fun in the here and now that everyone just lets him be. Murray showcases that throughout, in particular during one sequence when he talks his way out of a situation with a couple of cops. Murray makes Felix essentially the Mayor of his own world, one we all wish we could inhabit. However, they never let you forget about the seemingly lonely aspect of the character, part of which literally fuels the plot.

Director Sofia Coppola with Bill Murray in “On The Rocks” on Apple TV+.

Sofia Coppola gets to have some fun here, while still exploring the themes that have long interested her. Fathers and father figures have certainly made repeat appearances (though this is a far cry from something like Somewhere, which I also enjoy more than most) in her work, so it’s no surprise that as Jones’ Laura figures out what Wayans’ Dean is up to, she’s also dealing with Murray’s Felix. The way they resolve their situation is low-key and yet says so much. Visually, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd does a great job of capturing NYC. This isn’t a travelogue in the way that Lost in Translation sometimes was, but it evokes a similar sense of place.

Lest we forget about Rashida Jones, she’s quite good here as well, just playing a far more relatable character than Murray. Laura is the vibrant woman struggling to keep her vibrancy while in the midst of young motherhood. Seeing her dad live a larger than life existence, while her husband seems to be making inroads in that direction, it drains her, instead of fueling her. Jones leans into all of that, to be sure. She holds the picture down, acting as its marrow. Marlon Wayans is solid, if unspectacular, and doesn’t have a ton of chemistry with Jones, making for the one flaw here. Supporting players like Jenny Slate (playing a fellow young mother) are almost cameos, making this very much about Jones and Murray.

On the Rocks is a lark, to be sure. At the same time, though, it’s a Sofia Coppola lark, so emotions and melancholy are never too far from your mind.

This week, A24 and Apple TV+ have a wonderful new work to share in On the Rocks. It’s a delightful way to spend a little over 90 minutes, especially when you get to visit a version of New York City that’s currently on pause. When you can race around it with a true card in Bill Murray, how can you go wrong?

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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