Ever since her auspicious debut Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking career seems to have been focused around exploring a firmly defined set of themes. She has been equally interested in humanizing and commenting on the behind-the-scenes side of celebrity as well as the rather fundamental notions of girlhood and, later on, womanhood. Some would perhaps divide her portfolio into two distinct subsets, thus separating the seemingly outlying Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled, but it is – at least from where I am sitting – a mistake to do so. This is because there is, after all, a single connective tissue keeping all of her work together – her recurring obsession with trying to understand and discuss loneliness.
In her iconic Lost In Translation, Coppola talks about loneliness of the displaced. In The Bling Ring she extends this discussion to the emptiness of lives of wannabe celebrities, while in Somewhere her gaze reverts to analyze the alienation embedded in fame. In The Beguiled she touches upon the idea of being a woman in a world without men. The list goes on…
Therefore, it is natural to see her latest effort, On The Rocks, as a continuation of this career-spanning critical analysis. In fact, it is probably correct to see it as something more, because of the way this film connects with Coppola’s most important piece, the aforementioned Lost In Translation. In a way, this story could be understood as its spiritual successor thanks to the multiple planes of symmetry between the two movies, installed by the filmmaker both in the sphere of the narrative and in the form of subtle visual nods punctuating it every so often.
Accordingly, On The Rocks is centred around a woman (Rashida Jones) who has to navigate the bulk of her life alone, which mimics the predicament of Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost In Translation. As the story progresses, she teams up with her quirky father (Bill Murray) and embarks on an adventure which is partly to kill time and bring some fundamental joy into her life, as well as to fundamentally re-orient herself in life. Surely, this must ring a bell. However, the key difference between the two is the protagonist’s age, which – combined with the film’s subject matter – should immediately inform the viewer Coppola is not just touching base with her former glory or attempting to recharge her artistic chakras, but rather making a personal confession and giving her own insights on what it’s like to have a midlife crisis as a female.
This kind of authorial earnestness isn’t exactly novel because the bulk of her previous output – which also includes her period pieces – has been marked by highly personal commentary. Some of her works, like Lost In Translation and Somewhere may have even contained some clearly autobiographical elements sprinkled throughout. In this context, On The Rocks is a heart-warming, measured and soulful commentary on the reality of being a middle-aged successful woman navigating the vagaries of her own aristocratic parentage and trying to carve out her own path at the same time. But brilliantly enough, the entirety of this complex commentary is tucked underneath a blanket of familiarity offered by a template of a comedy of errors. As a result, the filmmaker manages to smuggle in occasional nuggets of commentary in between beats of what could easily be a Howard Hawks-directed prototypical escalating screwball comedy about a woman trying to figure out if her husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.
Coppola just casually drops in little scenes here and there, sometimes even fleeting shots and little directorial winks, to keep the audience from losing themselves in the machinations of the plot. She will offer a beautiful long take of Laura walking through her house and methodically picking up toys left by her lovely children. The camera will sometimes hang on her as she obsessively rearranges her workspace, as though to indicate she is suffering from writer’s block. And in all those moments, Laura is alone. Even when she is surrounded by other people, like her friend who can’t shut up about her own relationships, Laura is always alone. Nobody asks her how she’s doing. No-one cares to listen what she has to say. And when she signals to her husband, or her parents that she grappling with some profound anxiety, all she is given is advice, but never reassurance.
That’s where the true genius of this movie lies because the idea of seeking reassurance and confidence is equally distributed between these subtle elements of thematic depth captured using pure visuals and the sphere of the primary narrative, i.e. the plot-heavy wacky adventure with Laura’s womanizing father at her side. After all, her entire quest involving stake-outs, stalking and makeshift international espionage is at its core a mission to find fundamental reassurance in certainty. And it is all bound to eventually coalesce around a pitch-perfect ending which also happens to be composed as a melodious sequence of nods to Lost In Translation; however, this time, any ambiguity left by the storyteller is not meant to leave matters unsettled, but rather to preserve a modicum of romantic privacy Laura and Dean deserve.
This gives On The Rocks a unique quality of being extremely likable, perennially entertaining and scrumptiously thought-provoking in equal measures, which immediately elevates the film to the echelon of cinematic comfort food. It is truly a wonderful piece of filmmaking and a further proof that Sofia Coppola is a force to be reckoned with. She delivers a story that is urgent, timely and personal to her, while being forthcoming and relatable to great many viewers despite the obvious fact most people don’t come from aristocratic background and have not grown up surrounded by immense wealth or fame. And in doing so, she managed to not only recapture the magic of Lost In Translation, but crafted a cinematic experience that will live on as a standalone cultural touchstone with an understated love story woven into its fabric. Which is quite a feat, come to think of it.