Checkmate: Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Checks Out "On The Rocks" and "The Queen's Gambit"

Nov 16, 2020

You don’t have to go to the movies—or pull them up online—to get a sense of the generational discontent that drove the election this week. Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, goes to the movies to read what’s been on the kid’s minds.

HJ: After all that has been said about Mssrs. Biden and Trump and how they differ from soup to nuts, in that order, the one thing they shared as candidates and men was being old, part of a generation that is leaving the stage, gracefully or otherwise. And which is devoutly being anticipated by younger generations—as we saw from the primaries through the general election. 

It’s no surprise then that the great Unconscious of Film Culture is regularly providing films that anticipate young men and women wrestling in their fashion with how they break free from the Trumps in their lives. Children overthrowing parents, after all, is the generational split we see working out in our politics and our films. Contrary to the idea of escape, we engage better with entertainment that mines the things we’re mulling in our daily lives, that scares, excites, or makes us anxious and where attention must be paid. 

Sophia Coppola’s best work, where the writing sounds uncommonly mature – Lost In Translation and maybe The Beguiled – concerns how effortlessly powerful older, white male charm mesmerizes younger women. In On the Rocks she’s set Baby Boomer Bill Murray (from Lost in Translation) loose on Rashida Jones, who plays Murray’s daughter and a Manhattan mom of two married to rising young executive Marlon Wayans.

The milieu is Manhattan modern, from Woody Allen to Sex and the City to Julie Delpy and Chris Rock, and where the side characters – obsessed divorced mom, vampire seductress, etc. -- all swirl around the central couple, Jones and Wayans, who when you shake it all down, are mostly Black updates on Rob and Laura Petrie of New Rochelle. Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton, is light skinned, Wayans is Black, the terrain is middle-class anxiety, and Murray, who needs no introduction, gets into his daughter’s head that Wayans is cheating on her.

Bill Murray stars in "On The Rocks"
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

And so Dad proposes the devil’s bargain: a caper to shadow her husband and bond with an emotionally absent father, at the cost of the here and now of her marriage -- adulthood.

However tempting it may be to read into the personal saga of the daughter-father dynamic of Sophia and Francis, the project of the film – while ostensibly to restore the cute couple—is to reduce and banish the white Boomer generation as emotional Visigoths to be sent packing in their Rolls Royces. The film purposely takes aim at the negative stereotype of black men as bad husband material and shoots it through the heart. Murray clearly is no stereotype white Boomer, but a Boomer who’s strayed over boundaries and overstayed his welcome.

The film’s distributor, A24, rode the improbable Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to the Academy Awards a few seasons back and that infamous wait-a-minute-moment when a gay black film snatched the Best Picture Oscar from a white throwback musical, LaLa Land. You can see On The Rocks, a bump or three down from that, on Apple TV+.

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Queen's Gambit"
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

The Queen’s Gambit, the 7-part miniseries that is the hottest thing on Netflix, begins with a nine-year old girl whose PhD Momma committed suicide by Chevrolet, throwing herself off a planet that had no room for her. This lands young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) in an orphanage in Lexington, KY in the early 1960s. Two things get the kid’s attention — the ready supply of downers they feed the girls standing in a long line to receive, and a janitor in the basement, Bill Camp, who soothes himself gaming out solitary matches played by the masters. It is no mean feat that Camp makes Shaibel, the janitor, merely foreboding, a man below the floor where power is held by the female head of the Methuen Home, Miss Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), with the usual warden like tendencies beneath a very polished early 60’s surface. Oh my, yes, the film is designed to the nines to look hyper retro, and while that has irritated some critics, go argue with Mad Men’s 50’s designscape in reaching a wider audience.

The Queen’s Gambit is taken from a novel by Walter Tevis, who wrote The Hustler in 1959, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Queens Gambit in 1984 right after The Color of Money. The high school adolescent Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, now 24, seems like she fell to earth from the planet her mother returned to in episode one. As inhabited by Taylor-Joy, she is some kind of vulnerable ninjabot who is no less a calculated killer at the chessboard than the young pool hustlers without a cue who amble up to the tables to meet the sharks in Tevis’ other work. She is, however, first of all a she, and then also a naïf. Beth may share a chip on her shoulder with Bobby Fischer, but that seems less weighted than the gene passed down from Marie Curie, who also was smarter than the boys and struggled to live it. Young Beth lies in her dorm at night and plays out chess moves she projects upside down on the ceiling. That’s the film’s declaration to the audience:  you can’t touch that.

"The Queen's Gambit" is getting lots of attention
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

The two creative principals behind The Queen's Gambit are men. Directed by Scott Frank, who wrote Minority Report, and written by veteran writer Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now), Gambit hails from the Rocky underdog playbook. It’s updated around a new set of circumstances: Pill-popping girl orphan, to chess prodigy, to moving on to an old school adoptive mother whose only playbook has been men. The chess whiz in a dress deposes the boys’ kings and leaves them dumbstruck on her way to a showdown with the Russian grandmaster. One great performance after another, starting with acting prodigy Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller as her adoptive mom, Bill Camp as Shaibel the janitor, Moses Ingram as Jolene, the black sidekick who rides to the rescue — isn’t that always the way?— but importantly from Yale Law, so her scale of accomplishment is acknowledged. Much of the pleasure here belongs to the players, but the script freshens the underdog story with feminist DNA, plus a thousand touches large and small, summoning the spirit of Randall Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the way a woman might: reading the board and figuring out who ya gotta knock off to get outta here.

"The Queen's Gambit" is on Netflix
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

It’s the must-see of the season. For good reason.  And I'm Harlan Jacobson.