© Universal Pictures International Germany GmbH

Drive-Away Dolls
U.K./U.S.A. 2024

Opening 7 Mar 2024

Directed by: Ethan Coen
Writing credits: Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke
Principal actors: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson

Ethan Coen’s first movie without his brother Joel, Drive-Away Dolls is designed to make you laugh. Whether it does so or not may largely depend on your tastes. My tastes are not exclusively highbrow, but they do lean more toward Masterpiece Theatre than Dumb and Dumber To (2014). While I cannot say that it was the worst movie I have seen this decade, it is certainly the one I least enjoyed.

The film begins from the point of view of the uptight twentysomething Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who lives alone, works in an office, and reads Henry James in her spare time. When she reveals her plans to visit her Aunt Ellis in Tallahassee, Florida, her friend, Jamie (Margaret Qualley), a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, lesbian-bar-hopping Texan invites herself along. She convinces Marian to go to a drive-away service. The service is run by a bald middle-aged man, wearing a shirt that says Curlie (Bill Camp). Through a misunderstanding, Curlie gives the young women a blue Dodge containing valuable illicit cargo that was meant to be driven to Tallahassee by two gangsters. For the rest of the film the gangsters chase the young women trying to retrieve their goods. The women take a meandering route inspired mostly by Jamie’s goal to see that Marian has sex again since she has been experiencing a long dry spell of three years. Jamie, who is a kind of lesbian Casanova, only stops talking about sex when she is having it.

Drive-Away Dolls is set in Philadelphia in 1999. Although two references are made to Y2K at the beginning, the film feels more like an odd pastiche of the late 1970s with its trippy, psychedelic interludes and Linda Ronstadt covers and the later 2000s with Republican political candidates stressing family values.

It’s clear that certain lines and actions were meant to be funny, but they rarely land in a comic way. For example, early in the film a waiter kills another character. We see the typical waiter’s tools of trade sticking out of his victim’s neck, a corkscrew and a ballpoint pen. Part of me appreciated the clever visual but the rest of me just thought, ouch, that’s got to hurt. Later the decapitated head of a murder victim falls out of a carrying case and bounces down the street with a little dog chasing it. Funny? Again, not really.

It was also troubling to note that actors whose performances I enjoyed in other movies suddenly appeared at a loss of how to act. For example, Beanie Feldstein, excellent in Booksmart (2019), gave a performance that ran the gamut of emotions from Apple 1.0 to Apple 2.0. All of her lines were yelled, and her only emotion appeared to be anger. One of the stars of the movie, Margaret Qualley, who was poignantly believable in the Netflix limited series Maid (2021), seemed terribly miscast as Jamie. First, her Texas accent was not recognizably Texan. Second, she has the comedic timing of Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary. She and her co-star, Geraldine Viswanathan, supposedly fall in love by the end of film, but there’s no visible chemistry between them. It’s only when Qualley is out of frame that the viewer can see some evidence that Marian is softening or is at least sexually aroused.

Those interested in the evolution of the Coen brothers might be steered in another direction. In 2021, Ethan’s brother, Joel, released his own solo movie, The Tragedy of Macbeth. As a tragedy already written by an experienced author, it was a far better movie experience than Drive-Away Dolls. In Drive-Away Dolls, Marian is frequently seen reading Henry James’s The Europeans, and the viewer is surprised when one of the gangsters’ middle managers is reading another Henry James novel. It’s not clear what the point is. Perhaps it is meant to suggest that the director is more sophisticated than the film’s teenage-boy sensibility? Perhaps next time Ethan Coen and his screenplay co-author and wife, Tricia, could adapt Henry James for the screen. At least, then the characters might be fully developed, and it might be easier to ensure that intended humor is actually funny. (Julie Corwin)

Second Opinion

Director Ethan Coen and wife Tricia Cooke’s co-written screenplay is tongue-in-cheek raunchy tomfoolery fun zigzagging wildly across the screen. Since their professional parting after eighteen years and a zillion films together, Joel Coen’s more esoteric The Tragedy of MacBeth (2021), starring his wife Frances McDormand, was filmed in B/W amid austere settings. Not so with Ethan’s Drive-Away Dolls; psychedelic interims leap-frog audiences between careening capers, the dubious dual’s escapades—alone and together—down the East Coast from Pennsylvania to the Sunshine State. Outrageously sardonic, the twists and stabs at audaciousness are where least expected.

There are shady goings-on in the city of “Brotherly Love” when Santos’s (Pedro Pascal) deal, plus a great deal more, goes sour. Elsewhere in Philadelphia, Jamie’s (Margaret Qualley) getting some exercise that eventually, unwittingly irritates her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), which necessitates spending the night with their demurely strait-laced friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). Needing a change of scenery Marian’s going to visit Aunt Ellis (Connie Jackson) in Tallahassee; Jamie talks her into a “Drive-Away” adventure. The next day, though, at Curlie’s (Bill Camp) drive-away store Flint (C.J. Wilson), with input from Arliss (Joey Slotnick), antagonizes the proprietor about the car, with a tight delivery schedule, going to Florida they are meant to drive. Whoops! Two gals already came and left; when the Chief (Colman Domingo) arrives, he sends the inept mobsters after them. Meanwhile, to Marian’s chagrin Jamie likes detours. The ensuing episodic cat and mousing route deviates to Marietta, Georgia, and soccer-playing girlfriends, a night in lockup, a near catastrophe blow-out, astonishing discoveries, fancy lodgings, a gut-wrenching dog track incident and, last but not least, meeting the famously Christian, snarky Senator Gary Channel (Matt Damon).

Qualley, Viswanathan, and Feldstein undoubtedly steal more than just what is in the car’s trunk in this lesbian road-romp with the terrific cast rollicking along. Ari Wegner’s cinematography has full leeway keeping audiences abreast of the action Tricia Cooke cleverly, confidently, continuously edited. Frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell’s spirited score plus feisty soundtracks fit the bill. Woven into the screenplay are pointed political quips, e.g., the Senator’s “Who are you?” “We’re Democrats.” – and pay attention to the Senator’s point-and-tell justification in that silver case. Plus, Miley Cyrus pays homage to Cynthia Plaster Caster as well. (Marinell Haegelin)

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