Drive-Away Dolls (2024, dir. Ethan Coen)

by | Mar 13, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 84 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 15 March 2024

WHO’S IN DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS?

Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Matt Damon, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Ethan Coen (director, writer, producer, editor), Tricia Cooke (writer, producer, editor), Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robert Graf (producers), Carter Burwell (composer), Ari Wegner (cinematographer)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A pair of lesbian friends (Qualley and Viswanathan) find themselves pursued by the mob during a road trip…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS?

Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls, the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s first narrative feature without brother Joel, is a very strange beast indeed. It’s a film that clearly wants to be just like one of the Coen brothers’ much wackier comedies like Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading, and in some parts, it nails that exact tone near-perfectly. However, without Joel around to keep the basic storytelling and zany madcap humour planted firmly in the ground, it quickly becomes an unrestrained bundle of pure chaos, one that not even Ethan nor his co-writing/producing/editing/real-life partner Tricia Cooke are capable of keeping under control.

The result is a noble but messy effort on the part of this Coen brother to recapture his and Joel’s glory days of making idiosyncratic comedies that lived by their own set of rules, although this one somehow can’t seem to come up with a single rule for itself, let alone a whole set of them.

Taking place in 1999, we follow two young lesbian women, the free-spirited and outgoing Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the uptight and reserved Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who are both eager to skip town and head to Tallahassee, Florida for a fresh start, especially after Jamie is dumped by her cop girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein). The two friends soon acquire a car from a drive-away service, pack their bags and head out on the open road, where they – and by “they”, it’s mostly Jamie, whereas Marian would rather sit in bed reading her copy of Henry James’ The Europeans – hope to stop and hook up with other women along the way. The only problem? The car that they’re driving in contains a mysterious briefcase that some mobsters, as led by “The Chief” (Colman Domingo), are desperate to reclaim, for it holds something – or, indeed, some things – that one or two powerful people want back at all costs, so they’re now hot on the trail of Jamie and Marian as they continue their wild journey together.

Billed as the first of a so-called “queer B-movie trilogy” created by both Coen and Cooke, Drive-Away Dolls (which is titled something slightly racier in the closing credits) certainly has the vibe of a B-movie that you would often see in the 90s (perhaps this is why it’s set at the tail-end of that decade), with its increasingly silly plot and heightened characters, as well as a number of psychedelic interludes featuring skulls, crude late-90s CG animation, and Miley Cyrus as a hippie plaster caster. It even has the kind of hyper-stylised editing of a 90s movie, including some highly flamboyant transition wipes set to some wacky sound effects. It’s all very out-there and borderline absurd, even for a Coen brother, but in a way that makes you wonder if it has anything else to offer other than just its flashy and over-the-top style.

The answer is, surprisingly, very little, as Coen and Cooke’s script is far too light-headed to make sense of its own concepts or even deliver a satisfying enough execution of them. It crams whatever it can into a rather short runtime of 84 minutes, which causes the film to speed through its aimless plot without taking the time to properly flesh out some of the more important details. There were plenty of unresolved strands in Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous movies together, such as the buried money in Fargo or whatever was in that box in Barton Fink, but those were at least supported by intriguing central narratives, where the answers to those questions ultimately didn’t matter in the grander scheme of their complex plots. There isn’t that kind of underlying complexity in Drive-Away Dolls, which is as straightforward as they come, and it makes many of the unfolding events feel utterly random, frustratingly so, since there isn’t much substantial reasoning behind anyone’s decisions within the narrative to explain why they suddenly decide to do certain things that only happen for sheer convenience.

The arcs of its protagonists also suffer because the script once again doesn’t do as much with them as it could have done, leaving them as underbaked as anything else. While one cannot deny the on-screen charm of both Geraldine Viswanathan and especially Margaret Qualley, who here has a blast delivering her lines with a comedically overcooked Texan accent, theirs are characters who ultimately lack depth beyond their wildly mismatched personalities, and are not given enough development to work on character flaws that last all throughout the film. By the time their journey reaches a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, it hardly feels like either one of them has gone through a radical enough change to warrant spending a whole movie with them, which once again is frustrating because you can see their potential to shine in a better-written movie, one that utilises them better in a script that gives them a meatier story to function within.

On the plus side, Drive-Away Dolls is well-made enough to barely compensate for its thin material. Ari Wegner delivers some stylish cinematography that presents a bouncy and even sensual atmosphere to all the various lesbian bars and hotels that the two leads visit, while Carter Burwell’s score has some plentiful moments to shine in some of the quieter scenes. The performances are also entertaining, particularly from the two leads, although it’s hard to feel some disappointment that the bigger names like Colman Domingo, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal are largely wasted in what are essentially glorified cameos.

Though it’s not lacking in the technical department, Drive-Away Dolls is not even close to the top few tiers of works by either Joel or Ethan Coen. Even with one of the brothers in the top creative position, it doesn’t work that well as a homage to their wackier joints because it simply lacks the restraint, intelligence and much of the wit that drove many of their past comedies, and just goes to show that a little groundedness, which for Ethan clearly came in the form of Joel, can go quite a long way.

Here’s hoping that the brothers’ rumoured reunion – for a horror film, according to reports – brings out the best in both of them once more, because Ethan could certainly use it.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Drive-Away Dolls is a disappointingly scattershot attempt by director and co-writer Ethan Coen to recapture the vibe of his wackier comedies with brother Joel, but his and Tricia Cooke’s script lacks the restraint and depth needed for it to work nearly as well.

Two out of five stars

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