On the Rocks
Reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson
The true currency of life, the current that runs through it, driving it more than electricity or commerce, is not fundamentally knowledge or power or romance or sex, but attention. It is the paying and receiving of attention that makes the world go round and underpins everything else.
Romance and war, seduction and politics, all rely on one party paying attention to another in such a way that the attended party responds in the way the attender wants.
We want to be noticed by those who matter to us. And we notice those that matter to us. Relationships can break down, be they friendships, romances, or geopolitical alliances, when one party feels neglected. They may look elsewhere or become suspicious, whether they are nations or spouses. This can also be a tool, with absence making the heart grow fonder – but only if the circumstances are right.
On the Rocks is Sofia Coppola’s new film, starring Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans and Bill Murray. Sofia’s father is cinema giant Francis Ford Coppola and Rashida’s is recording maestro Quincy Jones, which adds to a film grounded in father-daughter relationships.
Laura (Jones) is happily married to Dean (Wayans), living in a New York apartment with two adorable and adored children. Laura is a successful writer with writer’s block who spends much of her time managing the family. Dean runs some sort of start-up company and is kept busy with business trips and work.
A series of odd little happenings spark suspicions in Laura there might be more to Dean’s business trips so, after some nerviness, she asks her dad, Felix (Murray) for his thoughts.
Felix is a rogue, a semi-retired art dealer and playboy with a trail of broken hearts in his wake – including the wife and daughters he abandoned. But he’s also a charmer who cares about people. He’s the sort of man who knows everyone – and their families – and takes a genuine interest in all of them.
As a practised adulterer, he takes the prospect of infidelity seriously, so he sets out to help his daughter spy on her husband – despite her own misgivings.
Coppola had an earlier, masterful collaboration with Murray, 2003’s Lost in Translation. In that film, Murray starred as a jaded actor who befriends a young, neglected newlywed, Scarlett Johansson, while stuck in Tokyo filming a whiskey commercial. Unlike the earlier film, On the Rocks is not as satisfyingly unsatisfying.
Lost in Translation posed an alternative model of men/women relationship to the norm of Anglo-American cinematic romances where the end is the bedroom – be it a marital on non-marital one. Instead, it showed the delight, the pleasure, that can come just from interaction, from a smile, a laugh, from time spent together.
Rather than an “industrial” model of seduction and romance with sex as the only end, it’s something more organic, one more open to a wider range of relationships, applicable to friendships and families, nation-states and domestic polities.
It is a model based on attention, and is arguably the Franco-Latin way of doing things – as anyone watching their political cultures will recognise. It is slow food rather than food-as-fuel, lightness rather than intoxication, tango rather than bump and grind.
The plot of On the Rocks requires resolution and so it has it, though its resolution may frustrate more than satisfy, precisely because of how it resolves its drama. Lost in Translation lacked resolution because it did not need it. It required ambiguity rather than clarity.
Throughout On the Rocks, Felix repeats evolutionary psychology claptrap about man’s need to mate to explain men, but more to justify his own behaviour. Whether these explanations are grounded in truth or not, Felix relies on them to mask his own loneliness and longing. His attitude undermines the very charm and loving attentiveness at the core of his being through a man-childish devotion to his own ego over the objects of his attention.
Give human beings an out from responsibility and they tend to take it. And they tend to miss out. They miss how lasting, meaningful delight comes from responsibility, not from irresponsibility, attention to the other, not to the self – attention that reveals the beauty and wisdom at the heart of things.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).