I recently read a story about Bill Murray I hadn’t heard before. On his first night on the set of “Caddyshack,” the whole crew went out to dinner. From across the table, he locked eyes with Cindy Morgan, the beautiful young actress who played the sought-after Lacey Underall. There was chemistry, but he never spoke to her. After dinner, a knock came on her hotel room door. It was Murray. “Wanna get out of here?” he asked. The next morning, she woke up with him at a nude beach.
This story came to mind while I was watching “On the Rocks,” the warm, funny, and perceptive new film from Sofia Coppola. In it, Murray plays an aging art dealer who has been womanizing his entire life and still flirts with every single woman he comes across, whether she be a waitress, bar patron, or just someone he sees on the street. It’s a great performance because, despite never having made his living on sex appeal, you fully buy into his character’s confidence. You believe he could have any woman he wants. Given his activities on the “Caddyshack” set, maybe it wasn’t much of a performance after all.
Murray is the star but not the protagonist of “On the Rocks.” He plays Felix, father of Laura (Rashida Jones): author, mother of two, resident of an obscenely spacious Manhattan apartment, and husband of a workaholic (Marlon Wayans) who may be cheating on her. She’s not sure, but Felix is. He knows the signs. To convince her, and so she can “get ahead of this thing,” he convinces Laura to spy on her husband with him. For Felix, it’s an adventure involving sports cars, private eyes, and trips to Mexico. For Laura, it’s the potential end of life as she knows it.
Coppola knows this dynamic well. “On the Rocks” is loosely the same film as her sophomore feature, “Lost in Translation.” Both feature a lonesome wife stuck with a husband who doesn’t appreciate her. With no one to turn to, she seeks out, um, Bill Murray who sprinkles his low-grade pixie dust on her, and shepherds her – and us – around the city. It’s a winning formula, but “On the Rocks” trades the candy-colored dreamscape of Tokyo for the more muted palette of Manhattan’s high-end cocktail bars. It’s a more refined effort in every way, from the witty, icy rapport between father and daughter to the film’s tidy ending, which wraps up its complicated themes like a sitcom that hopes it can move onto a new story the following week.
And yet its gentle approach to its subject matter is also responsible for its charms. Murray gives one of his best performances of the century as the charming womanizer. There’s a winning lack of self-awareness to his character; the fact that his daughter has clearly been emotionally damaged by his lifetime of philandering has no bearing on his behavior. He continues his incessant flirting, even while on their mission to expose her husband. Somehow, his attitude comes off as naive rather than cruel. Felix doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, and he’s far too old to change himself now. Murray, who has never had the gift of introspection, is the perfect man for the role.
But Jones gives the more resonant performance. The screenplay never asks her to summon the kind of big emotional breakdown that these films often rely on. Instead, she spends the film trying to pretend all of this is normal, which makes “On the Rocks” a movie that speaks to our current moment more than it even intended to. Detractors could argue that Coppola only considers her characters superficially, or that she has not enough interest in exposing the real anguish of bad parenting or a marriage in crisis. I prefer to think that Coppola simply respects her characters too much to expose their pain for our entertainment. It’s an unusual way to fashion a film, but these are unusual times, and “On the Rocks” ultimately has the same effect as a stiff drink at the end of a long day. It makes life’s problems seem a little easier.