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Drive-Away Dolls review: a wacky Coens caper, minus a Coen

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan peer around a corner in a still from Drive Away Dolls
Drive-Away Dolls
“There’s nothing straight about the raunchy, fitfully hilarious caper Drive-Away Dolls”
Pros
  • It's funny
  • It's sexy
  • Margaret Qualley is a loopy star
Cons
  • It's messy
  • You'll still miss the Joel touch

“One mind in two bodies” is how some have described the working relationship between Joel and Ethan Coen. But since American cinema’s most celebrated sibling act has disbanded, with each brother embarking on his own separate writing and directing career, it’s become increasingly tempting to map that supposedly shared brain by quadrants — to determine where one Coen’s sensibility ends and the other’s begins. Joel’s solo debut, The Tragedy of Macbeth, certainly encouraged such speculation. In offering a decidedly straight adaptation of The Scottish Play, the filmmaker inspired suspicions that he was the Gallant to his brother’s Goofus — the serious man behind A Serious Man, the one supplying the tragic side of their famously tragicomic equation. Or to put it another way: Was Macbeth proof that Ethan is the funny one?

Reductive though that binary may sound, new evidence supports it. Feast your eyes, accordingly, upon Drive-Away Dolls, the first narrative movie Ethan Coen has made without Joel. (He co-wrote it instead with his wife, Tricia Cooke, who edited several of the brothers’ joint features.) There’s nothing straight about this raunchy, fitfully hilarious caper, a lesbian road movie as cartoonishly irreverent as Joel’s Macbeth was haunted and somber. It’s the zaniest Coen creation in decades — and also the most rough around the edges, implying that maybe one of these brothers was more responsible than the other for the supreme formal control we’d come to associate with the plural Coen canon.

Ethan sets a madcap tone immediately with extreme angles and vaudeville gags (like a trash can lid hurled offscreen, hitting a screeching unseen cat). The prologue situates the action in the Philly of 1999, where man of the moment Pedro Pascal goes full Looney Tunes as a blackmailer with a briefcase, meeting his grim end in an alley. If you’ve ever wondered what Oberyn Martell’s death might look like if it was played for slapstick laughs, wonder no longer.

Colman Domingo, C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick look menacing in a still from Drive-Away Dolls
C.J. Wilson, Colman Domingo, and Joey Slotnick in Drive-Away Dolls Focus Features / Focus Features

That briefcase ends up in the trunk of a car. Behind the wheel, via a massive misunderstanding, are queer pals Jamie (Poor Things supporting player Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who are embarking on an impromptu road trip to Tallahassee, Florida. The two are a classic odd couple: the kooky, impulsive, bed-hopping firecracker paired off with the uptight, sexually frustrated killjoy. Their opposites-attract chemistry, silly and sexy in equal measure, assures that this comedy could always go from buddy to romantic

The movie cuts away from the pair’s episodic misadventures — a run-in with the law, a slumber party with a giggling sapphic soccer team — to follow the bumbling pursuit of a pair of equally mismatched goons, played by C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick, who are working for a gangster (newly minted Oscar nominee Colman Domingo). Think Fargo’s bickering kidnappers, only more incompetent and less dangerous. Their scenes teeter between sublimely stupid and regular stupid. There’s one inspired moment where Beanie Feldstein, as Jamie’s scorned ex, beats the living hell out of one of them while the other calmly questions her about the traveling women’s whereabouts. We’re a long way from the tight structure of even something as daft as Raising Arizona. This might be the first Coen brother project that could be confused for the work of a Farrelly brother.

That said, the screwball comedy is very Joel and Ethan (or, it’s now perhaps clear, just very Ethan). It’s visual as well as verbal: Dogs leap through the background of shots, performances go bug-eyed, and even the scene transitions get in on the physical comedy, with the frame not so much wiped as crashed or swung on hinges. Is this the kind of movie Ethan has always wanted to make? It seems to exist in a comic universe not far removed from 1985’s Crimewave, the “lost” Stoogian farce the Coens wrote for Sam Raimi.

At its best, Drive-Away Dolls is unabashedly dirty and — as teased by its real title, which subs Dolls for Dykes — unapologetically queer. Every woman we meet is gay and out of the closet. While few Hollywood sex comedies even acknowledge female desire, this one is only interested in it. Even the MacGuffin, a Pulp Fiction-style briefcase, turns out to be a ribald joke. Coen and Cooke flip off Florida conservatives (embodied by a movie star only a filmmaker of this reputation could secure) without a hint of winking self-righteousness. The time-warp pleasure of the movie is that its sexual politics are casually modern, while its sense of humor feels unfashionable, like something from an alternate timeline where screwball comedy had longer mainstream legs. 

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley hold a briefcase and each other in a still from Drive-Away Dolls
Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls. Focus Features / Focus Features

And yet the film teeters on the edge of collapse, too. Its manic nuttiness can be labored, and there’s a making-it-up-as-we-go-along quality to the flyweight-noir plotting. What holds it together, if only barely sometimes, is Qualley’s star turn — a supernova of drawling Texas charm and loopy libido. The love story is as tossed off as anything else in the script, but she sells it with joyful nonchalance. Viswanathan has it harder, as she’s stuck playing the stick in the mud, but she occasionally comes alive with aplomb, as during a sexy sex scene — the one moment in the movie that aims for elegance and restraint.

On the whole, Drive-Away Dolls has more moxie than discipline. Despite the decades of experience between its makers, it really does feel like a directorial debut — messy, but promising. If there’s a certain delight to seeing Ethan let his freak flag fly, the nagging feeling the movie leaves you with is that two Coens are better than one. Of course, one might arrive at the same conclusion after Joel’s Macbeth, which is so different from this movie that it suggests a clean split in creative preoccupation. Where Goofus meets Gallant, the true magic happens.

Drive-Away Dolls is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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