Bill Murray’s Bill Murray impression is priceless in On the Rocks, the way John Wayne did a fantastic John Wayne parody in True Grit and Al Pacino found a new level of Pacino-ness in Scent of a Woman. I want to quote every line of dialogue Murray delivers in his new movie for Apple TV+ — every hilarious piece of misguided advice, every wayward evolutionary theory — but I wouldn’t want to spoil the movie for you. On the Rocks is Murray straight-up and 140 proof.
The film is the latest in Sofia Coppola’s career-long series about forlorn young (or in this case, young-ish) women of high-to-vast privilege. I appreciate the way Coppola (who wrote and directed the movie and is one of its producers) makes no pretense of knowing what life might be like for the poor and marginalized, and this one is set mostly in a SoHo apartment large enough to land a Chinook in. Among the dilemmas faced by Coppola’s protagonist Laura (Rashida Jones) is that she sold a book in advance of having written it. Yes, so many of us who get paid for work we haven’t done yet can identify.
Nevertheless! Rich people legit have problems too, as we learned in The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation, etc. Laura’s potential life-changing suspicion is that her seemingly ideal husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) — handsome, rich, charming, a splendid daddy — is cheating on her. The evidence is circumstantial. He’s spending a lot of nights on the town with his work team, a couple of whom are fetching young ladies, definitely younger and possibly fetching-er than Laura, who has gone a bit frowsy as she races around town with their two little kids. Even more disturbingly, Dean for a moment once seemed to think Laura was someone else. In bed.
Who you gonna call? Laura’s consigliere of choice is her dad Felix, wealthy art dealer, doting grandpa, friend to the working man, cad, rogue. Swanning around Manhattan in a silk scarf over an expensive suit, picking up his daughter while joke-singing in a chauffeured Mercedes, taking her to a ritzy club where he banters with the staffers he knows by name, this Bill Murray is the Platonic ideal of Bill Murray. And that’s even before he takes her out on the town for a wacky adventure involving a classic sports car, Champagne, caviar, and the police. Somehow the greasy nerd who used to give Gilda Radner noogies on Saturday Night Live in 1979 has become a hepcat Sinatra. “I’ll have a Cutty on the Rocks and a Bombay martini for the kid,” he says at one of those rich, leathery Midtown clubs that have fallen out of fashion. If anything can breathe some life into this scene again, it’s Bill Murray. Felix even takes Laura to the 21 Club, which is the kind of place where Sinatra would have taken his daughter. Coppola’s tastes cannot be faulted, and as usual she chooses an excellent musical score, this one by Phoenix.
True, the story of this movie could fit on a cocktail napkin and there’d still be room enough for a couple of olives; plotting is not Coppola’s forte, and she’d probably be wise to bring in some writing help from someone more committed to crafting a story arc. And it’s curious that Coppola’s women characters can sometimes feel a bit thin; Scarlett Johansson, who played the ostensible protagonist of Lost in Translation, was more or less of a cipher compared with Murray in that one.
Yet Jones’s bland acting style is a great fit for her character; all she has to do is be the straight man, and it’s important that she not get in Murray’s way as he capers around sharing deeply questionable advice, leering at ballerinas, and watching Breaking Bad with grandkids under the age of ten. I can’t imagine anyone else delivering line readings the way Murray does, in a way that suggests equally that he’s making fun of himself and of his listeners. As is often the case with a Murray movie, the dialogue sounds as if he wrote it himself because none could do it better. “You have to walk backwards, so no one knows we’re leaving” is his strategy for gracefully exiting a party. He avers that the Plaza Hotel is best for adultery because it has three separate exits, posits the existence of a Canadian sex cult where men get forced into being concubines for their women captors, and complains that he is coming down with an unusual form of deafness that makes it impossible for him to hear the voices of women.
For this performance — loose, louche, flirty, rooted, wise but silly, impossible but endearing — an Oscar would be insufficient. Murray must be crowned king of earth. King of cool he already is. “It must be verrrrry nice to be you,” Laura tells Felix, or Jones tells Murray, with teeth grinding. Oh, I hope so.