“On the Rocks” is minor work from Sofia Coppola, but even minor work can have its pleasures if Bill Murray is involved. It marks the first time the two have worked together on a film since “Lost in Translation” (2003), a turning point for both actor and director. And both actor and director have experienced high and low points in the 17 years since. The new film is neither. It’s an agreeable diversion. Opening at the Kendall Square Friday, it starts streaming on Apple TV+ Oct. 23.
“On the Rocks” also has Rashida Jones, who’s capable of something few actors manage: She makes thinking dramatically interesting. Her role as Laura, a stalled writer, frazzled mother, and neglected wife, is largely reactive at first. Laura’s exhausted, she’s in a funk, and her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is away all the time raising money for his tech startup. A shot of Laura in line at her daughter’s school, listening/not listening to a fellow privileged mom (a very funny Jenny Slate) gas on about her dating life, sums up Laura’s sleep-walking existence in a nutshell.
Then she starts suspecting Dean may be knocking heels with his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick, from “Game of Thrones”), who is smart, funny, chic, thin — every wife’s nightmare. Here’s where Murray enters the picture as Laura’s father, Felix, a semi-retired art dealer and jet-setting gadabout who returns to town just in time to be the devil on his daughter’s shoulder. There is no angel.
Felix assumes that all men are cads like him so therefore Dean is cheating, and “On the Rocks” hits its easygoing stride as he goads Laura into father-daughter spying missions. The movie comes this close to screwball comedy but lacks the energy to switch into antic gear; instead, it cruises along in second until the final act, when it sputters out like Felix’s vintage Alfa Romeo. There is a car chase up the avenues of nighttime Manhattan, one that ends with a police stop and a masterful bit of social engineering by Felix. He’s an embarrassing old roué and a force of nature, great company even as he drives his daughter batty with his non-stop flirtations.
Felix is the kind of guy who will look at a waitress, say “ballet dancer,” and be right. Worse, it works. He has only one real sin: He likes his steak well done. I think Bill Murray is the only person on the planet who could pull this role off.
Because it’s a Sofia Coppola movie, “On the Rocks” takes place in a luxe universe that is lovely to visit — cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd films everything in soft, glowing colors — even as you may feel a little priced out. For all of Laura’s misery, she lives in a sunny SoHo loft and she doesn’t have to work. There are side trips to Mexico and mansions out in the country (where the heroine’s grandmother is played by Barbara Bain, of the “Mission: Impossible” TV universe long ago). Her children never have a tantrum and Coppola’s house band, Phoenix, provides the streamlined soundtrack. “On the Rocks” makes the houses in Nancy Meyers movies look like dumps.
None of this is bad — we go to movies to escape, now more than ever — but it does feel rather inconsequential by the time “On the Rocks” resolves its plot with a whimper rather than a bang. The film’s real drama lies inside Laura’s head as she comes to terms with her father’s charming betrayals while trying to pull herself out of her rut. Jones makes the dilemma matter but she needs a stronger structure on which to hang the tale than a sweet, tired “Is my husband cheating?” story line. The film’s an amuse bouche made by people with the skills for a banquet. Don’t be surprised if you come away feeling a little empty inside.
ON THE ROCKS
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans. At the Kendall Square. 96 minutes. R (some language/sexual references).