This year was a complete nightmare, and then I saw 6-foot-2 Bill Murray crammed into a tiny, red Alfa Romeo convertible, careening around the streets of Manhattan in “On the Rocks.”
Murray sells that hilarious image, of course; a big part of its joy is his deadpan expression as he towers out of the driver’s seat, waiting for Rashida Jones to hop in.
The appeal of “On the Rocks” rests almost entirely on the premise that it would be big fun to hang out with those two, listening to them riff. Murray delivers a charm offensive, tossing off one-liners and acting like life is one big cocktail party with an endless supply of those delicious water chestnuts wrapped in crisp bacon. (The title is less a reference to the state of a marriage than to the state of a martini.)
What tension there is comes from the complicated relationship of the two main characters. Murray is Felix, a scoundrel who ditched Jones’ Laura when she was a girl. In a voice-over as the movie begins, we hear him telling her as a child, “Don’t give your hand to any boys. You’re mine until you’re married.” That creepy/loving vibe extends into their adult relationship, where she’s still annoyed he chose a string of flings over his family and he’s still delighted to be mistaken for his daughter’s older swain.
Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s plot is an excuse for the two to hang out and hash out their differences: Laura’s husband (Marlon Wayans) may be cheating on her, and figuring her dad is an expert on that subject if nothing else, she seeks his advice. Which he is perhaps too delighted to give. It’s like Felix and Laura are in different movies: Her life is collapsing in tragedy but he makes like a character in a romp such as “To Catch a Thief,” zipping around in his roadster and searching for clues.
“I don’t know why women get plastic surgery,” comments Felix, in a monologue that has been almost entirely consumed with his remarks about the appearance of women. His daughter replies, “Because of men like you.”
Their teasing relationship occasionally gets pointed, but mostly, they get a bang out of each other. (Laura’s brisk wit is an evolved version of her dad’s cruder humor.) After she watches her father sweet-talk his way out of a traffic ticket, Laura cracks, “It must be nice to be you.” She seems to mean that, but the sentiment deepens as the movie progresses and we begin to wonder what kind of life would be nice for Laura.
Despite Murray’s lovableness, Laura is the main character, and she is in a holding pattern. She’s so busy keeping track of her kids’ and husband’s schedules that she has little time for her own writing projects and she suspects that, if her husband is fooling around, it’s because their relationship has lost that lovin’ feeling. (Murray does not croon that righteous Righteous Brothers classic in “On the Rocks,” but he tackles a couple standards in a nod to his karaoke scene from Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”)
In some ways, “On the Rocks” feels like a sequel to “Translation,” with a snappy woman and older guy bumming around in a world-class city. Both are comedies, tinged with melancholy, but Coppola finds a way to end this one on a more buoyant note: Laura’s madcap, Harriet the Spy-like adventures with Felix finally help her figure out who her virtual stranger of a father is. And who she is, too.