Before starting, one thing: On the Rocks is quite competent. Please note this, tuck it away in the back of your brain, because On the Rocks is also another thing: it’s quite boring.
Following the story of a young New York couple, Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes increasingly suspicious that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is sleeping around. Not impressed, Laura is unwittingly dragged into a spy operation of sorts by her father Felix (Bill Murray), who tries to prove Dean is, in fact, sleeping around.
Off the bat, it’s one of the more visually striking dramedies of late – softly lit, peaceful yet slightly uncomfortable darks. It’s really natural, but God help you if you try watching in broad daylight. The first five minutes are stately, honing us in on these people’s lives, focusing less on words and more on visuals, letting expressions and body language convey a marriage beginning to crack, and it just feels correct. There are a few of these moments, usually playing with the quiet anxieties of uncertainty in various respects, whether it be marriage or purpose or fulfillment, and in those moments On the Rocks is effective.
To boot, each of the main three actors – Jones, Murray, and Wayans – are game, each successful with the varying degrees of quality their characters are blessed with. Murray can’t really bomb this type of “charismatic oof” role. Wayans doesn’t have much to do, or much of a personality, though he makes a decent enough effort when his infrequent moments turn the corner (he plays the “I’m always working but love my family” type, which, to be fair, is limited at baseline). Jones is the crux of the movie and she shines brightly, bringing great deals of internal strife that define and humanize Laura.
It’s mildly annoying, then, that On the Rocks relegates Jones to the type of protagonist subject to exposition dumps early in, killing the natural momentum those first five minutes gave. I understand that it’s easy to get baggage out in the open early, but at the very least one can characterize Laura better than, “I’m a writer, should’ve never sold a book, now I have problems,” and On the Rocks loves to use Laura’s ability to write as an easy barometer for her mental well-being, despite us having no idea what she writes or what really drives her, as apparently that falls outside the scope of this film. It makes for less-than-riveting characters, with Murray’s Felix being the only one coming to grips with any personal demons, and even then it’s almost cursory. The last half-hour nicely picks up pace, finally bringing the Drama™, but hits a narrative wall once (spoilers) things wrap up between Laura and Dean in a pretty little bow and that’s that. The resolution between Laura and Felix is surprisingly more complex, suggesting that you can love and keep questionable people in your life without necessarily absolving them of the things they’ve done – probably the most insightful thing throughout a film that doesn’t have much to say.
It all falls a little flat compared to the zest of Coppola’s prior work, like Emma Watson’s iconic “I wanna rob” from The Bling Ring. To be clear, though, On the Rocks isn’t bad. It’s light and airy enough to be innocent viewing, but a consequence of that is a distinct lack of fervor, flair, or anything particularly memorable, which is disappointing when you have a hotpot of talent who can obviously do much more.