I’ve never been the biggest fan of Sofia Coppola. She’s a talented filmmaker but at the end of the day her films are just not for me. And that’s ok. Honestly, I think more folks need to adopt that way of thinking when it comes to filmmakers they dislike. While there are some universally egregious examples of bad filmmakers that deserve harsh criticism, more times than not a person’s disdain for a director’s work comes down to them not being the target audience for said director’s work. Greta Gerwig’s movies aren’t for everyone. Terrence Malick isn’t for everyone. Neither is Sofia Coppola.
The thing is, I subject myself to all of Coppola’s movies whenever they come out so it’s difficult to not hold my tongue when it comes to her work (with the exception of The Virgin Suicides, I’ve seen all of her films in the theater). Like a lot of cinephiles with common sense and an appreciation for history, I’ve never been a fan her rewriting actual history to make things fit her ideology (from removing the Black maid character from her remake of The Beguiled to make racist southern whites ladies look more sympathetic to some of the liberties taken in Marie Antoinette, and the overall lightly sympathetic tone towards the spoiled brats in The Bling Ring).
I don’t want to dwell on her overall theme of; “it’s so hard to be a privileged white lady” because I don’t want to be incorrectly labeled as a misogynist. While I do think that the overall theme in almost all of her films is absolutely “it’s so hard to be privileged”, I have no problem falling back in to the idea of these movies are just not for me. Plus, these types of criticisms I just listed above could be debated forever so it’s almost pointless to keep going.
It’s really Coppola’s unique diehard fanbase that bugs me more than her movies. In certain circles she’s made out to be one of the unofficial posterwomen for feminism in film and that really concerns me considering some of her ideologies play in to the negative stereotypes associated with what some condier to be “white feminism” (the erasure of Black women in The Beguiled, the unfair criticism of the “ditzy” woman stereotype as portrayed by Anna Farris in Lost In Translation, etc). But I recognize I am a man so I’ll tread lightly when it comes to women’s business...
Gender still does play an interesting role when it comes me and Sofia Coppola's movies. It’s no coincidence that I think Somewhere and On The Rocks are her best films BY FAR. I imagine some of you just looked at this like I said Martin Scorsese’s best movies are The Color Of Money or The Departed, but as a Black man raised in a middle-class Black household, movies like The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation just don’t relate to me. Again - that’s ok.
And it’s not like Somewhere or On The Rocks are completely relatable either. They still play in to some of the “rich people problems that really aren't problems” stereotype that comes along with Coppola’s films. But as a diehard fan of Olivier Assayas (Demonlover, Personal Shopper, Summer Hours, Boarding Gate, etc) I really have no right to complain about a director dwelling on rich people problems.
What stood out so much to me in On The Rocks was the portrayal of fatherhood. I think mothers and fathers are equally important in life but I’ve always been extra critical when it comes to the portrayal of fathers in movies. We aren’t going to argue that, for the most part, moms have it good on the big screen while dad characters are either dysfunctional psychos or useless paperweights. Occasionally we get a dad character that’s meant to be positive or realistic, but generally speaking - dads are often one dimensional.
The fathers in Sofia Coppola’s later work are a beautiful mixture of loving, caring, immature and selfish.
In On The Rocks, Bill Murray's Felix is an older womanizing, cheating playboy that loves his daughter. While he clearly didn’t appreciate or respect his ex-wife (something that I assume has been worked out over the years), he still loves and cares for his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones). He cares for Laura so much that he aids her in investigating as to weather or not her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.
On the surface, On The Rocks is a mature comedy caper in the style of Judd Apatow meets Claudia Weill. When you dig beneath the surface it’s a very autobiographical story for both Sofia Coppola (elements of Felix’s character appear to be based on Francis Ford Coppola) and Rashida Jones (her father Quincy Jones is a known womanizer with controversial opinions about women).
Who knows complicated rich men better than Rashida Jones or Sofia Coppola. I think their pairing is the perfect combination.
The father/daughter caper in On The Rocks is also a weird form of bonding mixed with therapy in that Felix is witnessing what he put his wife through back in the day by observing his daughter’s insecurities about her own relationship.
As many folks have already pointed out in various reviews and on twitter, On The Rocks is kind of like a spiritual sequel to Somewhere. There’s even a not-so hidden Easter egg as the daughters in both films dress alike...
|Somewhere / On The Rocks|
It’s as if Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco (Somewhere) matured a bit (a lot of the negative & positive qualities that apply to Felix apply to Johnny).
I don’t normally like the kinds of characters in On The Rocks (well-off people that need something to do so they create drama in order to fill some void), but like Olivier Assayas (and occasionally Wes Anderson), she makes typically empty characters seem interesting. I’d like to see Sofia Coppola tackle more complicated male characters as it seems to work the best in my opinion. I feel weird drawing a comparison between Sofia and Claire Denis (not so much because they’re both women but because Denis is my favorite filmmaker), but they’re both much better at showing complicated male characters than they are at showing female characters.
Similar to how Somewhere and On The Rocks are spiritually connected, Alex Descas’s portrayal of Fatherhood in 35 Shots Of Rum is a callback to his roll in I Can’t Sleep.
Sofia Coppola has claimed to not be familiar with Claire Denis which would indicate she isn't influenced by her, but they're portrayals of men (specifically under the umbrella of fatherhood) makes for an interesting pairing.