2.5 stars (out of 4)
There never was a sequel to Lost in Translation. Everyone who saw writer-director Sofia Coppola’s moody and exquisite 2003 arthouse hit must give their own interpretation as to what Bill Murray whispered into the ear of Scarlett Johansson as the two parted ways in Tokyo. Here’s one possibility: “Psst … in 17 years, I’m going to star in another Coppola movie called On the Rocks. Only this time I hit the town with a different younger actress. The sparkling moments will make up for the less-than-substantive plot. Also, I’ll be wearing a mask at its drive-in world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Long story.”
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Like Lost in Translation, the comedy On the Rocks also features a cool double-entendre title. Rashida Jones plays Laura, a frustrated writer living in Brooklyn with her businessman husband Dean (Damon Wayans) and two super-cute daughters. They have a solid marriage, but she worries it may be on the brink of crumbling. Her husband has been on an awful lot of work trips lately and he often travels with a gorgeous female colleague.
Why are her toiletries in his luggage? Why did he change the passcode on his phone? She confides her fears to her dad Felix (Murray), himself a rakish and droll art dealer/bon vivant who prefers the company of a classic cocktail on ice to a wife.
The narrative is set in motion when Felix suggests that he put Dean on surveillance. Soon the two become a sort-of Spy Kids for grown-ups, snooping on the unsuspecting Dean in a convertible from outside the Soho House and other trendy-as-of-2019 clubs. (What a love letter to NYC!) This is really a cover for big-time bonding. Laura wants insights into the male psyche, even though she’s still emotionally stung by her dad’s repeated infidelities back in the day. He wants to spend time with his daughter, the only woman who’s consistently stuck by him and his caddish lifestyle.
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“It must be nice to be you,” she says to him admirably and ruefully after he weasels out of a speeding ticket in the most winning scene of the movie. His matter-of-fact response: “I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.” That effortless Murray charm still works, all these years later. And he eases into the role like a velvet slipper.
As you may surmise, the story isn’t really centered on the possibility of whether Laura’s husband is cheating on her. Coppola isn’t aiming for Marriage Story, as that’s never been her style. Just as well — the thin-as-tissue-paper premise isn’t enough to hang a movie on anyway. That said, Laura is justified in her concerns: The couple’s dialogue is stilted in every scene and there’s both a constant emotional and physical distance between them. Hard to tell whether that’s intentional on the part of Coppola’s original screenplay.
What we’re left with is Murray and Jones paling around New York City after-hours. Given the joy that was Lost in Translation and the overall pit of doom that is 2020, that visual alone should be more than sufficient. Alas, mild “is that all there is?” disappointment awaits. Coppola, who’s also helmed The Beguiled, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring, brings a slightly detached vibe to a dramedy that should have been wittier and more humanely funny. Driving around in a cool car isn’t quite enough. A screwball comedy sense is lacking, as are wry insights about relationships (minus the usual lessons of trust and what happens when you assume.) The talented Murray and Jones work extra-hard to enliven the proceedings and much of the film gets by on their considerable chemistry.
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The minimalist approach is ideal in an unfamiliar hotel room setting. Less so when it comes to a traditional (or even non-traditional) familial bling ring. The result is a film so fizzy that by the time it’s all over, you realize there wasn’t much there there. But hey, at least Murray and Jones keep the spirits flowing.
On the Rocks, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, opens in select theaters on Friday, October 2, and on Apple TV+ on Friday, October 23.
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