Sofia Coppola’s films have always felt vaguely nomadic. Though a couple of her movies are set in Los Angeles, befitting her status as cinematic royalty, her vividly drawn ennui travels well, from the Detroit suburbs of The Virgin Suicides to the tourist’s Tokyo of Lost in Translation to the 18th-century Versailles of Marie Antoinette. Her characters often feel like strangers in these settings, even if they’ve lived there for years.
It’s a perfect quality to transfer to New York City, where Coppola lands for the first time in her new film On the Rocks, now on Apple TV Plus. Specifically, On the Rocks takes place in the Manhattan of well-to-do residents who can afford enough space for themselves and two children. It’s both recognizably New York-y and foreign to New York residents who take the subway far more often than they take chauffeured cars, not to mention for those who’ve spent the past six months in semi-quarantine, with many of the city’s whimsical pleasures closed off to them.
Laura (Rashida Jones) doesn’t need an on-screen pandemic to feel closed off from her work as a writer, which is often crowded out by her responsibilities as a mother. She’s similarly isolated from the other moms at pick-up and drop-off, who make conversation at her, not with her. Most of all, she’s distanced from her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans). Dean has immersed himself in the business of a promising start-up, which entails a lot of work trips, schmoozing, and excitedly regaling her with stories of ROI and social engagement numbers. It also involves a few suspicious bits of behavior that lead Laura to wonder whether he’s having an affair with a younger colleague.
Laura’s mind goes to this possibility in large part because her father Felix (Bill Murray) is a flirtatious playboy who left her mother for another woman. (As Laura notes bitterly at one point, he didn’t even have the courtesy to stay with his mistress for the long haul.) Largely unapologetic about his behavior, but fiercely protective of his daughter, Felix convinces Laura to investigate the matter further, with various low-key spying missions around Manhattan and eventually beyond. What follows is a stop-start not-quite-farce, with Laura’s curiosity leading her to go along with Felix in spite of her reluctance to buy into his view of men as biologically programmed against monogamy.
The movie represents a change of pace for Coppola, and it happens upon one resemblance that’s probably unintentional. With its concerns over marital fidelity, its casually moneyed point of view, its familiar comic persona occupying a central role, and its light amusement barely masking a sense of loneliness, On the Rocks vaguely resembles a Woody Allen movie. As it happens, Allen just had a movie come out himself, years after Amazon cut it loose due to the lingering sexual-abuse allegations against him. A Rainy Day in New York is slinking, mid-pandemic, into whatever U.S. theaters will play it. (Presumably not for very long, as the Upper East Side locations where Allen’s movies would typically settle in for four-month runs remain closed.)
Even for those who can still stomach Allen’s work, Rainy Day doesn’t represent his best. It’s one of his bizarre forays into contemporary youth, following a couple of college kids on a weekend jaunt into Manhattan. The improbably named New York native Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet) wants to spirit Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) around a bunch of fancy restaurants and bars, plans that are stymied by Ashleigh’s elaborate student-newspaper interview with a mercurial film director (Liev Schrieber) and his screenwriter (Jude Law). In typical Allen switcheroo fashion, Ashleigh gets distracted by the older men as well as a handsome movie star (Diego Luna), while Gatsby reconnects with Chan (Selena Gomez), the younger sister of an old flame. No matter how much of their lives are ahead of them, Allen’s characters have old flames, shrinks, and relationships that focus on marriage and infidelity.
Allen doesn’t have much to say about any of this. It’s just a more youthful gloss on his usual hang-ups. When he coasts through a late-period film (as he has for most of the past decade), the minor pleasures come from spotting which new-to-him performers can put some unexpected zing into the musty one-liners. Chalamet and Fanning do okay in Rainy Day, but Selena Gomez is the one who shows surprising facility with tart-tongued romance. (“Do I have to listen to this without an airsick bag?” she asks herself when forced to overhear Gatsby’s phone check-in with Ashleigh.)
This is more a reflection of the lack of decent banter made available to young actresses than an indication of any additional comic acumen Allen has gained in his eighth decade of screenwriting. And it’s not just his writing that creaks. Flouting his usual technical proficiency, the editing of Rainy Day often feels uncertain, with scenes that dissipate rather than end. Even Vittorio Storaro’s colorful cinematography, a highlight of Allen’s spotty last few films, looks a little stagy. Allen is returning to contemporary New York for the first time in a decade, and he has trouble slipping back into his old rhythms. In its minor, occasionally amusing, worn-out way, A Rainy Day in New York feels like the end of something.
It isn’t, of course; Allen’s next film, Rifkin’s Festival, is already complete, and it opened at a Spanish film festival in September. Presumably U.S. distribution will follow in some form, though probably closer to the shifty profile of Rainy Day in New York than the splashy rollout of Midnight in Paris. Still, watching Rainy Day in close proximity to On the Rocks, it’s striking to see how much more nuance Coppola captures in a very similar world.
It’s not that she’s any kind of heir to Allen. She has a 20-year filmography, and it’s as distinctive as any American director’s. On the Rocks is her most accessible movie so far, with less hazy atmosphere and a sturdier, more traditional center: Laura is written by Coppola and performed by Rashida Jones with a directness lacking in The Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation. It’s easy to miss that youthful ennui — she has a better rapport with that age group than Allen ever did — but Coppola assumes an older point of view gracefully. Laura has enormous privilege, with her book deal, successful husband, and lovely children, but she’s also isolated by her motherly responsibilities, especially with her life partner rushing out the door. (Intentionally or not, Wayans plays Dean as prone to genially tedious first-date small talk.)
This shift is communicated with simple parallel imagery: Shortly after a shot trailing clothes Laura has shed onto the floor on her way to a wedding-night clinch with her husband, there’s another shot trailing her as she picks up various items her children have left on the floor. Her conversations with other mothers (especially one played perfectly by Jenny Slate) become increasingly fragmented and one-sided. Younger Coppola characters often feel still, or restless; Laura’s life is perpetual motion.
Allen characters may philosophize about these kinds of changes in the abstract, not always bothering to depict them visually. In his best work, that philosophizing at least comes with comic snap. Despite her affinity for Bill Murray, Coppola isn’t a natural comedian; in On the Rocks, he’s charming and droll, but seamlessly integrates his comic timing into Felix. (Lost in Translation left room for full-on shtick as it explored Murray’s sadder side.) Laura quips like a real person — mildly and obviously, without polished joke-writing.
Like a lot of later-period Allen movies, Coppola’s movie feints toward farce without committing to major comic setpieces. There are some funny shenanigans with Felix and his bright red convertible, but the movie is more about the way Laura’s face falls when Felix observes that her husband’s lack of texts from his attractive co-worker is actually suspicious.
The conclusions Laura and Felix reach in On the Rocks aren’t so far removed from a Woody Allen ending, either. Conflicts come to a head without earth-shaking epiphanies or shifts in the status quo. Life goes on. At the same time, Coppola isn’t prone to the shoulder-shrugging that’s plagued later-period Allen, and she views the old-guy romance peddled by Felix differently. Jude Law’s Allen-ish screenwriter character is sidelined in Rainy Day, but he still gets to prescribe what he thinks should happen after a day of New York adventuring: “In my version, the movie version, the guy looks up and realizes he’s fallen in love with the girl.” In On the Rocks, that option isn’t available. Felix still flirts with women, but the movie isn’t interested in his relationship travails, and Murray’s performance suggests that Felix has made peace with who he is, and is now making peace with how the world moves on anyway. This doesn’t mean he’ll change, but he’s no longer the center of attention.
Similarly, watching Laura and Felix in the warm, low lighting of various old-fashioned New York clubs, it becomes clear that this territory no longer really belongs to Allen, if it ever did. The allegations that have slowed his career (and that understandably make it harder for some to engage with his later work) don’t destroy his past films. They do, however, help accelerate the sense that they belong to the past, to a New York that no longer exists. Gatsby Welles pines for this New York, and the movie can’t quite break it to him that it doesn’t exist. Coppola’s New York may not stick around either, even in the realm of on-screen fantasy. She may move on to other cities and never make another film here again. Yet for this lonely moment, On the Rocks feels right.
On the Rocks is now streaming on Apple TV Plus. A Rainy Day in New York is in theaters in limited release.