Film & TV

Sofia Coppola’s Cinema-of-Privilege

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in On the Rocks. (AppleTV+)
A Hollywood scion puts class and race On the Rocks — and it’s a cloying cocktail.

Sofia Coppola’s best film, 1989’s Life Without Zoe, was also Francis Ford Coppola’s loveliest trifle, an emotionally buoyant anecdote featuring ecstatic visual elegance (as shot by Vittorio Storaro). That court métrage (short film) was a studio-financed daughter–father collaboration — Coppola père directed, Coppola fille wrote the screenplay — in which a wealthy artist’s only child bestows her noblesse oblige across a glitzy, post-Reagan-era New York City and around the world. The simple plot about an haute-couture schoolgirl (Fieldston private school, of course) who not only solves an international crisis but also saves her parents’ marriage was a fairy-tale distillation of all of Sofia Coppola’s leisure-class concerns. Her new feature film, On the Rocks, is, essentially, a remake of Life Without Zoe.

The similarities of Life Without Zoe and On the Rocks prove that Sofia’s sensibilities have not changed from adolescence to drinking age: Laura (Rashida Jones) is a successful writer and a mother of two daughters, ensconced in a luxurious SoHo loft with an ad-executive husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans). She goes on cocktail-fueled adventures with her father, Felix (Bill Murray), an affluent gallery owner, who urges Laura to spy on, then inadvertently reconcile with, her workaholic sexy spouse. Sexy, because that’s consistent with Sofia’s Sleeping Beauty–Prince Charming fantasy life.

If there’s anybody who confirms the essentially bourgeois nature of filmmaking, it’s Sofia Coppola. She has become the icon of contemporary women in cinema ever since her breakout film Lost in Translation (made ten years after Life Without Zoe), thanks to the media’s class bias — middle-class critics who over-empathize with the lifestyle dilemmas of the rich and famous. Lost in Translation presented a meandering American screwball-comedy triangle in which the third-party husband was mostly off-screen while the heroine and a father figure flirted through fashionable alienation in Japan. It was a bourgeois bonanza for privileged feminists, even though it’s always difficult to tell exactly how “feminist” Sofia is when the oppression felt by her heroines is mostly in their heads.

On the Rocks indulges rich-girl privilege by downplaying the heroine’s alcoholic self-medication, turning her daddy issues into charming, intergenerational, cross-gender repartee. This is also a trifle, less sumptuous than Life Without Zoe, but it’s probably Sofia’s least annoying feature-length foray. That her self-centered approach lacks the hysteria and hostility of the current political moment makes it tolerable.

Bill Murray makes it work. He expands upon Lost in Translation’s bewilderingly inauthentic patriarch (the Francis Ford Coppola figure) by defining a man-child addicted to sports cars, stylish urban boîtes, and compliant women. Felix relates to his daughter on a sophomoric level. Murray’s Santa-daddy is such an affable, gregarious guy that glum, jealous Laura nearly disappears in his shadow. Murray walks around carrying his own bon vivant spotlight. He’s the life of the party, but with actorly gravitas. Murray has matured into the kind of showbiz eminence that won George Burns an Oscar.

It’s clear that Sofia adores Murray, but her admiration shortchanges Laura so that Rashida Jones is made unappealing; she has none of Felix’s joie de vivre, just a latent sense of resentment that bursts forth in a rant at Dad: “You can’t go deaf to women’s voices. You’ve got granddaughters, so you better learn how to listen!” This is the film’s dramatic peak, and even it derives from Murray’s improvisational genius. (He disparages women’s voices in a definitive assessment of contemporary feminist attitude and intonation: “It’s the pitch.”)

The emotional dynamics in that scene are more effective than anything Noah Baumbach has contrived — particularly Sofia’s visual metaphor of Laura’s tears dropping into a martini, a variation on crying-in-your-beer; it reminded me of why a rock critic damned the “chronic insularity” of Steely Dan’s album The Royal Scam. But like all navel-gazing filmmakers, Sofia exhibits the same spoiled-brat self-satisfaction.

Famous filmmaking prodigies such as Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci, and John Huston saw past their privilege and connected to the world, rather than simply touring it. In Laura’s awkward meeting with her husband’s young female co-workers, Sofia doesn’t reach for exploration or understanding — distance is her point, yet she lacks the comic energy to display Laura’s disdain. This is the opposite of noblesse oblige.

Other clues to Sofia’s conceitedness: Laura’s hipster lounging wardrobe (Beastie Boys, The Paris Review, and Run-DMC T-shirts) and the Bernie Sanders bumper sticker in her kitchen — a sign of family politics, linked to Felix’s desk photo of him comparing golf clubs in the Oval Office with Barack Obama.

Yes, Sofia Coppola’s cinema-of-privilege has gone past the Cinderella stage and into political smugness. It’s apparent in the film’s casual “post-racial” subtext: two generations of mixed marriages among people whose “diversity” is camouflaged by wealth. Not even the little-known Martha’s Vineyard movies The Inkwell and Charles Burnett’s The Wedding offered such nonchalant idealizations of social progress. But they predated Obama; Sofia is still in the trance. She grooms the outrageously talented black comedian Marlon Wayans (Little Man, White Chicks) into Jones’s outrageously handsome love-object, and their biracial daughters — the next generation — both resemble Quvenzhané Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild. Yes, Sofia Coppola is a culturally vapid movie brat.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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