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“Drive-Away Dolls” Goes Astray

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 22nd, 2024

Drive-Away Dolls (Ethan Coen, 2024) 2½ out of 5 stars 

Between 1984 and 2018, from Blood Simple to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen made 18 feature-length films together. Since that last movie, they have worked separately on other projects. Among them have been Joel’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth and now Ethan’s Drive-Away Dolls, co-written with (and edited by) Tricia Cooke, who is also the latter’s wife (and a longtime editor who cut a number of the brothers’ films, starting with The Big Lebowski). Filled with whimsy, jokes, and whiplash-inducing plot twists, the movie tries extremely hard to offer a good time. A little too hard, as it turns out.

There are also lesbians; many lesbians, in fact, adding enjoyable diversity to the usual comic caper. They’re not the problem. Quite the contrary. But it’s the script and heavy direction that threaten to derail the narrative from the start, every line of dialogue and  (almost) every performance seeming to underline the gags with unnecessarily thick marker. Thank goodness for Geraldine Viswanathan (Cat Person), whose comparatively low-key turn gives us a welcome reprieve from the constant directorial directive to laugh, laugh, laugh!

Geraldine Viswanathan in DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features

She plays Marian, a deeply reserved young woman whose friends are the opposite: loud and proud. In an opening scene in a raucous gay bar, she looks like she’s still dressed for the office (she also likes to read 19th-century author Henry James, a kind of avatar of literary repression). Through a series of early shenanigans, Marian ends up on a road trip to Florida with Jamie (Margaret Qualley, Sanctuary), who wears her libido not just on her sleeve, but her fingertips, always horny and looking for action. In fact, Jamie is so unwilling to tamp it down that her longtime girlfriend, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, How to Build a Girl), has had enough and kicked her out for cheating.

Marian wants to move in with her aunt in Florida, but neither she nor Jamie have a car, so they book a “drive-away” car—a vehicle in need of relocation—to the Sunshine State. Unfortunately, the rental place’s manager mistakes them for others, giving them a car with a special package inside. Whoops. As a result, they soon find themselves pursued by a pair of hit men—played Joey Slotnick (Plane) and C.J. Wilson (Irresistible)—managed by an imperious and irate gangster played by Colman Domingo (Rustin), who shares Marian’s penchant for James. Always one step ahead of the bad guys, until they aren’t, Marian and Jamie go through adventures and misadventures that, often, involve sex.

l-r: C.J. Wilson, Colman Domingo, and Joey Slotnick in DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features

And dildos, which end up playing a major role in the story towards the end, thrown together as part of the increasingly manic push for ever-greater laughs. To be fair, there are those, too, though the mise-en-scène and screenplay do their best to get in the way. The strain of everyone’s efforts begins to show far too soon. Qualley, especially—though she is no doubt pushed to these extremes by Coen—takes mannered acting to new heights. My head hurts just recalling the layer upon layer of excess.

Again, however, Viswanathan delivers. In addition, the organic way that the film places its lesbian characters in the world as confident and assertive in their sexuality is refreshing. There is much to appreciate. Unfortunately, there is slightly more to annoy. These “drive-away dolls” (or “dykes,” as the title flips to during the end credits) take a few too many wrong turns en route to their destination.

l-r: Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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