For two decades, evidence has been mounting that the elegiac low-budget 2002 cult classic Lost in Translation was a stroke of luck, a fluke, and its director a one-hit-wonder. What might perhaps be a polemic opening statement, should garner wider agreement when reworded ever so slightly: no other film of Sofia Coppola has captured the minds of both the broader audience and cinephiles alike with the same fervour since then. The always existing and wholly necessary corollary of dissenters aside, the dreamy, melancholic cocktail of alienation and ennui experienced by two strangers in Tokyo, and the intimate platonic connection they form during their time there, in all its ephemeral serendipity, has withstood every wave of reappraisal since its release. It has cemented its place in the annals of American cinema of the aughts.
But what has happened since then? While The Virgin Suicides (1999), the director’s debut feature, is still decently respected, even if it pales compared to the many preeminent coming-of-age genre peers, subsequent efforts have met with varying levels of enthusiasm, all while benefitting from a potentially unhealthy amount of critical goodwill in the process. Whereas Somewhere (2010) might still be salvageable with a moniker like ‘divisive’, films like Marie Antoinette (2006), The Bling Ring (2013), and The Beguiled (2017) definitively corroborate any suspicions regarding the director’s inability to penetrate its subjects even though (or perhaps exactly because) it continuously chooses to revisit them. The world has, by now, a sizeable filmography on its hands, and it has become apparent that examinations of sheltered, privileged, and not seldom vacuous characters are at the heart of it. What has by now also become clear, however, is that the quality of examination itself – in other words, the filmmaking – has rarely gone deeper than that which it portrays, often at a loss to say anything substantial about the particular forms of isolation and indulgence its interested in beyond registering their mere being-so, a discursive void on which a career has successfully been built.
Yet, whatever reproach and dismissal one is inclined to hoist toward Coppola’s body of work, it is eclipsed by On the Rocks, a new romantic comedy penned and co-produced by the director. The film debuted at NYFF this year and is the first in what is to be a series of collaborations between A24 and Apple, the former currently distributing it in theatres as part of a limited release until it finds its permanent home on the latter’s streaming service (Apple TV+) starting tomorrow. The relative silence surrounding its release spurs the imagination: after seeing the film, there is solace to be found in interpreting it as the quiet shame of a filmmaker who has, at least for the time being, given up.
The film follows an affluent family consisting of newlywed 30-somethings Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans), and their two children. The set-up is conventional at best and rote at worst: Laura is experiencing a vague mid-life crisis as her husband is consumed by his success at work, leaving her to tend to the children and their apartment. This conflict is the closest the film comes to a structuring sujet of sorts: Laura feels unloved, as she suspects Dean of unfaithful behaviour, and domesticated, not being able to focus on her own dreams of advancing her writing career. To shake things up, enter Laura’s father Felix (played by returning Coppola collaborator Bill Murray), a chauvinist playboy with money and connections, who sows doubts about Dean, trying to persuade his daughter to spy on her husband and to catch him red-handed. Wacky antics ensue, and there is no reason to withhold the result: it amounts to nothing at all, Dean – of course – is innocent, Laura apologises and moves on from her clingy father, decisively settling on her husband as the ‘man’ in her life. This last point is, in fact, as ill-considered as it sounds – but let us not get ahead of ourselves.
On the Rocks can be juxtaposed with various pre-texts, mainly the New York comedies of the Woody Allen wheelhouse, and it single-handedly makes even the recent stretch of those shine in comparison. The trickster dad swooping in to mix up the boring everyday life of his daughter is reminiscent of Toni Erdmann (2016) except if an American remake of Ade’s film spawned a bootleg version or got turned into a Hallmark film. On the Rocks is a romantic comedy on paper but, in actuality, it does not have the slightest idea of what it wants to be. To name one example: Laura’s father spouts sexist lines and expresses objectifying views about women (and acts on them). They are so blatantly primitive that they work neither as actual characterisation nor as satire, delivered with a wooden apathy that eschews, whether deliberately or not, comedic timing altogether. Bite or wit, there is none. At a vernissage at Dean’s workplace, Laura has an awkward conversation with an attractive colleague of her husband, the kind of light satire on the uncomfortable nature of high society get-togethers that we have seen a million times before. A friendly parent at school that keeps blabbering about her dating life. What are these characters supposed to demonstrate? What is the point of this insipid, faceless cinematic endeavour? To be more banal than the sum of its already pedestrian parts?
The writing leaves out not a single cliché, and, at the same time, is in a permanent state of confusion about what it is supposed to be accomplishing. In fact, the script is so inept, it barely manages to establish that Laura is supposedly a writer with an already published book. Whenever she tries to write, she sits in the most impersonally decorated home office, staring at the blank page of her text editing program. It would be hard to conceive of a more uncreative way of depicting writer’s block as she simply sighs and shrugs – and the film cuts away. Almost every scene is the film equivalent of Shutterstock: seemingly generated to be the most flavourless version of itself, a non-offensive, white New York upper-class representation of a marriage life right out of an IKEA catalogue. The film patters along with no sense of direction or taste. Establishing shots for locations are shot in the most gaudy way imaginable: stock New York skyline footage set to generic jazz, and, of course, once the ill-advised daughter/dad duo teleport to Mexico, snooping after Dean on his business trip, the cheapest selection of mariachi tunes is quick to follow suit and confirm that, yes, they are indeed in Mexico. “I can’t believe I’m here.”, remarks Laura. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”, asserts Felix.
On a similar note, the cinematography is as stale and utilitarian as every other part of the equation. A palette of grey, beige, petrol, white and black tones renders the visual profile of this flat-looking digital production a bore. The mise-en-scène presents interiors in a way that is perfectly complementing the characters that inhabit them; they boast the life and personality of a law firm advertisement or the brochure of a furniture store. There is no trace of or attempt at style here as the film offers little beyond the hallmarks of an average TV production: medium shots, shallow focus, muddy lighting. A silly car chase in a red Alfa Romeo is supposed to spice things up around the halfway mark, and in a regular romcom, it would feel jarringly out-of-place. Here, it falls neatly into place, another pointless entry in a gallery of trivialities.
The saddest part of On the Rocks is that it is not satisfied with just offering a whole lot of nothing. After all, we had established that the film does posit a thematic bedrock in Laura’s feelings of alienation and loneliness as she feels increasingly unloved and uncared for, forced into the corset (or apron, as it were) of a gender stereotype. This is crucially hammered home when, on her birthday, her husband Dean is on a business trip, unable or unwilling to celebrate with his wife. As they are talking via video, he orders the kids to bring in ‘the first part’ of her birthday present, with the second to follow at a later point. At this point in the film, the suspicions against the husband have to be upheld for suspense reasons: of course, the gift shockingly turns out to be a kitchen appliance, registered with disappointment by Laura as it affirms her feelings of being reduced to an archaic notion of motherhood. So far, so ham-fisted. As the husband is cleared of any wrongdoing by the end, and Laura apologises for her distrust, the film is happy to sweep aside all the concerns of its main character, smoothing out the few thematic bumps it mustered at the outset, to initiate a happy ending that is played completely straight. It is Laura who has to apologise but as a reward, she is able to write again – as we are literally treated to the same stock home office footage again, except on the conspicuous MacBook, the page is naturally filled with words now – and she gets the second part of her birthday gift: a golden Cartier watch. While a KitchenAid went against her longing for emancipation, jewellery will do just fine for her. The underlying tone-deafness is, in turn, deafening. Rarely has a film so stupendously declared its focal character a complete cardboard cut-out right at the very end like On the Rocks manages to by dismissing even the one piece of subjective conflict it dabbles with throughout its 96-minute runtime. Laura is reduced to a woman whose happiness is merely contingent on whether her husband has cheated, regardless of the still extant reality of being confined to her life as a housewife.
Perhaps, one might interject, this creative lethargy is the most Apple TV money can afford. We retort that limitations have ignited the mind of many a filmmaker, if only they were willing to work with them. On the Rocks, on the other hand, is a nigh inexcusable release, regardless of the filmmaker who handed it in, and doubly so from one with a supposed pedigree. It ranges from dull to outright offensive, artistically, and yes, even politically. The little substance it manages to cough up is promptly trampled over like a sandcastle. It is the sad testament of a filmmaker in continuing creative regression, a filmmaker who has historically proven, if only once indubitably, that they could. Here, they cannot and do not care to for a second.