Drive-Away Dolls

There’s no shortage of Coenesque fun in this gloriously wild road-trip comedy, even with just one of the filmmaking brothers driving the show.
Sarah Ward
February 22, 2024

Overview

No one might've thought of Joel and Ethan Coen as yin and yang if they hadn't started making movies separately. Since 2018's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their latest feature together as sibling filmmakers, the elder of the Coen brothers went with Shakespearean intensity by directing 2021's The Tragedy of Macbeth on his lonesome — while Ethan now opts for goofy, loose and hilariously sidesplitting silliness with Drive-Away Dolls. The pair aren't done collaborating, with a horror flick reportedly in the works next. But their break from being an Oscar-winning team has gifted audiences two treats in completely different fashions. For the younger brother, he's swapped in his wife Tricia Cooke, editor of The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn't There, on a picture that couldn't slide more smoothly onto his resume alongside the madcap antics that the Coens combined are known for. Indeed, spying shades of the first of those two features that Cooke spliced in Drive-Away Dolls, plus Raising Arizona, Fargo and Burn After Reading as well, is both easy and delightful.

As a duo, the Coen brothers haven't ever followed two women through lesbian bars, makeout parties and plenty of horniness between the sheets, though, amid wall dildos and other nods to intimate appendages, even if plenty about the Ethan-directed, Cooke-edited Drive-Away Dolls — which both Ethan and Cooke co-wrote — is classic Coens. There's the road-trip angle, conspiracy mayhem, blundering criminals in hot pursuit of Jamie (Margaret Qualley, Poor Things) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, Cat Person), dumb men (those crooks again) in cars and just quirky characters all round. There's the anarchic chases, witty yet philosophical banter and highly sought-after briefcase at the centre of the plot, too. And, there's the fact that this is a comedic caper, its love of slapstick and that a wealth of well-known faces pop up as the zany antics snowball. The Joel-and-Ethan team hasn't made a film as sapphic as this, either, however, or one that's a 90s-set nod to, riff on, and parody of 60s- and 70s-era sexploitation raucousness.

Cooke, who identifies as queer, helps Drive-Away Dolls draw upon what she knows in its watering holes and three-decades-back timing; the movie was also originally conceived pre-Y2K, when it would've been a contemporary piece if it had made it to fruition. Centring on its paired queer ladies, there's a lived-in vibe among its gleeful chaos, then. Giving the film authenticity and having a freewheeling blast by going in any which way that it can — and swinging from sweet to eagerly cheesy at times (including in its editing) — aren't mutually exclusive for a moment. One of the best surprises of Drive-Away Dolls is how constantly surprising it is and entertainingly spontaneous it feels, no matter how many familiar Coenesque beats and bits viewers can pick out as the romp rolls on for 84 engaging minutes.

Among the elbows in past Coen fare's direction is Sanctuary and Stars at Noon's Qualley as the self-assured and keenly talkative Jamie, who could be a relative of George Clooney (Ticket to Paradise) as O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s Ulysses Everett McGill (off-screen, of course, Qualley is her Maid co-star Andie MacDowell's daughter). But she's rarely in tight spot even when she is; letting anything pierce her good time isn't her vibe. Marian and then Jamie's police-officer girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, American Crime Story) calling while she's in the throes of lust with someone else doesn't pierce her bubble. The subsequent end of that relationship barely does, in fact, other than sparking her desire for a new backdrop. Contrastingly, Marian always feels like everything is wrong — almost to Inside Llewyn Davis levels — whether she's being asked out by a colleague, annoyed by the word "anyhoo", keeping resolutely single years after her last breakup or deciding that ditching Philadelphia to visit an aunt in Tallahassee is her only option for change.

Jamie doesn't just declare that she's tagging along when Marian hits the highway to Florida; she's the reason that the picture has the title it does (which was originally Drive-Away Dykes). If a car requires transporting from one place to the next, customers can put their hands up for discounted — or even free — vehicle hire to get it from A to B via a drive-away deal, which is handy for Jamie and Marian's finances. But after a visit to Curlie (Bill Camp, The Burial) for their temporary automobile, goons Arliss (Joey Slotnick, Plane) and Flint (CJ Wilson, The Blacklist) become their two-steps-behind shadows, working for an insistent fellow crim (Colman Domingo, The Color Purple). They're after a briefcase that's introduced in the movie's opening scene, where it's in the hands of a collector (Pedro Pascal, The Last of Us). Simply attempting to hightail it out of town, Jamie and Marian have no idea what they've inadvertently gotten mixed up in.

This is Ethan's debut solo fictional feature without his sibling co-helming. That said, it's his and Cooke's second successive project where Ethan is credited as the director, Cooke edits, but it's clearly a joint effort (the first: 2022 documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind). This Coen brother knows how to make all kinds of double acts work, then — and, in this one, Drive-Away Dolls' guiding forces weave no shortage of hookups into the journey. A chihuahua named Alice B Toklas, Henry James novels, cameos by Matt Damon (Oppenheimer) and Miley Cyrus (Black Mirror), a game cast in lead and supporting parts, a wild goose chase, general giddiness, a heap of spice, bars and hotel rooms after bars and hotel rooms, artist Cynthia Plaster Caster: they're all along for this ride. There's ample daffy detours in the narrative, but zero stalling in this riotous affair.

With chemistry to burn between them, Qualley and Viswanathan are as pivotal to Drive-Away Dolls as its main behind-the-scenes talents. The film was always going to need a duo who made viewers crave every second in their company regardless of what the script throws their way, including whether Jamie is splashing around her exhibitionist sex-positivity or Marian is yearning for a life less ordinary — and it found them. There's a particular depth to Australian Miracle Workers, The Broken Hearts Gallery and Blockers star Viswanathan's portrayal, despite plunging too deep never being one of Coen and Cooke's aims. Marian wants something beyond the rut that she's long been stuck in. She can't stop being herself, aka the movie's straight man, to get it. She's hardly welcoming of the mania that she's thrust into. Relatable also isn't what Drive-Away Dolls is chiefly going for, but it finds it as well and drives away with it.

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