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Film Reviews: On the Rocks and The Boys in the Band

Arts Review2020-10-2By: Marc Glassman

Films starring Bill Murray and Jim Parsons kick off the fall season.

On the Rocks
Sophia Coppola, director and writer
Starring: Rashida Jones (Laura), Bill Murray (Felix), Marlon Wayans (Dean), Jessica Henwick (Fiona), Jenny Slate (Vanessa), Barbara Bain (Gran)

Limited film release starting Oct. 2
On Apple TV+ starting Oct. 16

On the Rocks is ostensibly a comic caper film about a father helping his daughter, who is trying to find out If her husband has been cheating on her. And, although clichéd, that could have worked. But given that Bill Murray was cast as the father, is it any surprise that the film is more about a dad and his daughter with the husband taking a distant second place?

Not only does Murray dominate the film, none of the actors come close to challenging him. Coppola wrote the part of Felix for Murray, who excels here as an extremely wealthy art dealer—we see real Monets and Twomblys in upper crust Manhattan apartments that he frequents—who is so cool that the term “sang froid” might have been devised to describe him. Dressed immaculately, he is the essence of charm as he navigates Manhattan with the only girl he’s really loved, his daughter.

Who else can turn a bland limo scene into something goofily loving as Murray sings and whistles the theme song from the Forties film noir classic Laura to his sweetly complex daughter who was named after that tune? One of the silliest motifs in the film is having Laura be incapable of whistling while her father is a nonchalant delight doing it. The fun here is that Coppola is playing to her core audience for laughs, since they know that Laura is performed by Rashida Jones, a classically trained pianist and the real-life daughter of the multi (and I mean multi) award winning music producer, composer and player Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton.

In fact, the father-daughter syndrome goes further than Jones. Sophia Coppola’s father, director Francis “The Godfather” Ford Coppola, is just as famous and accomplished as Quincy Jones. Rashida and Sophia—they almost sound like sisters—have always had to deal with the complexity of having a dad, who loves them–and women and work and food and wine and the world. It’s no wonder that Laura’s life in this film is one of a person thwarted in her creativity—she’s working on a novel but has writer’s block—since that leaves her more time to play games with her dad while worrying constantly about her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans).

Self-esteem is a crucial issue for Laura, who discovers that Dean’s constant business associate and travelling companion is Fiona, a tall cool Brit, who has flair from her custom wear shoes to her stylish hair. Laura may be a beauty but her dad calls her “shortie” for a reason. She seems to be stuck in a way hipper version of a Sixties housewife, taking care of the kids—two adorable girls—and listening endlessly to boring friends who are constantly in the midst of boyfriend woes or marital crises.

The thought that Dean’s relationship with Fiona (at one point, he calls her Fifi) might be a passionate one allows Laura and her dad, Felix, to go on a magical mystery tour of their own. They chase after Dean and Fifi through midtown Manhattan until losing them when Felix’s sportscar—a red one, perfect for tailing philanderers without being spotted–gets stopped for speeding. Felix, being Felix, spots the arresting officer’s name and proceeds to tell him that he’s a pal of his dad’s and even went to his grandfather’s funeral. No ticket—did you think he’d get one—and just another exceptional night with dad for Laura.

The payoff to Coppola’s film proves to be a comeuppance for such overly macho—if caring—fathers. Ultimately, Laura’s and Dean’s marriage has to come into play. But before the necessary ending, the audience has been treated to the immeasurable pleasure of seeing Bill Murray at his best. This is hardly the greatest film the talented Sophia Coppola has ever made but she may have guided Murray to a best supporting Oscar. As Ringo sang it many years ago, “You can never tell.”

The Boys in the Band
Joe Montello, dir.
Mart Crowley and Ned Martell, script based on Crowley’s play
Starring: Jim Parsons (Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Charlie Carver (Larry), Robin de Jesus (Emory), Brian Hutchison (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), Tuc Watkins (Hank)

Available on Netflix

The ground-breaking Broadway homosexual drama by Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band is a play that must have seemed to be too dated to revive today. But to nearly everyone’s surprise, it not only did get resurrected, but the wickedly melodramatic theatre piece struck a chord with critics and the Broadway crowd in 2018. That version of the play complete with its cast starring such openly gay thespians as Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto turned heads and box office turnstiles, showing that there is staying power in what was assumed to be a period piece.

Employing the same cast, script and director, Netflix has brought the revival back to film, 50 years after William Friedkin helmed the original cinematic version of the play. What’s surprising is that the new version of The Boys in the Band hasn’t become successful by parodying the initial Broadway hit nor by indulging in nostalgia. Taking Crowley’s premise seriously, this new cinematic adaptation plunges us back to 1968, when being homosexual was against the law. Even in New York, most gay people only played out their true personas at night when they were less likely to be harassed by the police or even their neighbours.

In those pre-Stonewall days, when being closeted was a way of life, Michael (Parsons) is throwing a birthday party for Harold (Quinto), a writer, who is his intellectual rival and supposed best friend. Coming to the party are, one must admit, a stereotypical crew of gays from the period: Larry (Rannells), a commercial artist and his “roommate” Hank (Watkins), a math teacher, who left his wife to be with him; Emory (de Jesus), an effeminate Black man, his best “Negro” friend Bernard (Washington), and Donald (Bomer), Michael’s once-a-week lover, who has made nothing of his life. Adding to the dramatics of the party are Cowboy (Carver), a quintessentially dumb hunk and Alan (Hutchison), Michael’s straight roommate from college. It’s no surprise that Alan’s unexpected presence unleashes furious responses from Emory and others, nor is it unexpected when Larry and Hank begin to fight. Still all of the dramatics keep our attention and bits from the past, like a quartet of the party goers prancing and dancing to the Motown hit “Heat Wave” remind us of the power of being Camp back then.

The high drama is unleashed when Michael proposes a game of “Truth,” where everyone has to call the secret love of their lives and confess their forbidden affection to the person on the phone. There’s no device like an old one—and Crowley picked a good one, placing a withering light on each of the characters in turn. Those of us who are old enough should remember the power of the phone before social media invaded our lives. “Truth” still works, hokey though it is, and so does the play, provided you’re willing to hear too many confessions concerning the humiliation of being gay.

Sometimes, the past can be hard to revisit. The Boys in the Band provokes a complicated response, politically and emotionally. Many people are “woke” or at least tolerant these days but not everyone by a long shot. As for the film, it still carries a punch. Parsons leads an excellent group of actors in this dark but funny drama. You have to get over the old fashioned nature of The Boys in the Band to embrace it but it’s my opinion that many will. It’s on Netflix. Why not view it?

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean

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