Ethan Coen continues along his solo directing path with this oddball crime caper

Drive Away Dolls

Source: Universal Pictures

‘Drive Away Dolls’

Dir: Ethan Coen. US. 2023. 83mins

For his first narrative solo venture, director Ethan Coen crafts a crime caper that is reminiscent of the oddball comedies he has made with his sibling Joel. Unfortunately, Drive-Away Dolls lacks the magic of the filmmakers’ earlier projects, straining for the quirky humour and irresistibly peculiar characters that are the speciality of Coen brothers films. Starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan as lesbian roommates on a road trip, unaware of the valuable cargo in their car’s trunk, this underwhelming picture runs aground long before reaching its final destination.

 The film clearly aims to be nothing more than a silly romp

Drive-Away Dolls opens in the US through Universal (via Working Title) on February 23, with a UK release slated for March 15, and it follows on from Ethan’s first solo film, the documentary Jerry Lewis: Trouble In Mind in 2022. Joel, meanwhile, first went solo with 2021’s stark The Tragedy Of Macbeth. Propelled by the rising star status of Qualley and Viswanathan, who are joined by Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon in smaller roles, Drive-Away Dolls may lure back viewers who prefer the Coens in irreverent mode, although it has been a while since their biggest hits, with their last film, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, going to Netflix. And notices are unlikely to be positive.

Set in 1999, a time when marriage equality was a divisive political issue in America, the film introduces us to Jamie (Qualley), a boisterous Texan who has just been dumped by her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) because of her cheating. Desperate for a change of scenery, Jamie convinces her more modest roommate Marian (Viswanathan) to go on a road trip, convinced that Marian, who has been single for years, needs to let loose. Signing up with a drive-away rental car company, which assigns vehicles scheduled to be transported to a particular city, the two women head from Philadelphia to Tallahassee. But what they do not know is that their automobile was meant for an imposing criminal, The Chief (Domingo), who needs an important briefcase stashed in the back.   

Writing with his wife Tricia Cooke, who also is the film’s editor, Ethan Coen has devised Drive-Away Dolls to be an impish throwback to a bygone era of low-budget B-movies – and those who adored the Coen brothers’ pictures will certainly spot some of their stylistic and thematic trademarks in Ethan’s solo project. (For instance, The Chief’s bumbling henchmen, played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, would not have been out of place in Fargo or Raising Arizona.) 

Qualley gives Jamie a big, broad Texas accent, and the character’s straight-shooting brashness and unearned confidence mark her as a familiar Coen hero. But as conceived, Jamie never unveils the intriguing wrinkles or endearing mannerisms that Ethan and his brother exploit for maximum comedic effect in other films. Too often, what is most interesting about Jamie is that she is gay and horny, which Drive-Away Dolls tries to make funny. But despite the more conservative time period — and the fact that these roommates arrive in Florida, a hotbed of intolerance — Coen rarely capitalises on this obvious culture clash. He hopes that audiences will find the very idea of lesbians hilarious. 

Like Jamie, Marian is gay but far more reserved than her roommate, and Viswanathan locates the humour in her uptight, thoughtful character. In films like The Beanie Bubble and Blockers, Viswanathan demonstrated a talent for getting laughs by underplaying scenes — she often depicts people who quietly react to the craziness around them — and she has a few such moments here, essentially serving as Qualley’s straight-woman. Yet Jamie and Marian’s dynamic is not lively enough to create much narrative or comedic friction. After an unexpected discovery, Drive-Away Dolls briefly ventures into more emotional terrain, but the film’s overall glibness undercuts that tonal shift.

The mystery of the briefcase’s contents is resolved in unsatisfying ways, the revelation playing into the film’s generally giggly, sex-related humour. To be sure, Drive-Away Dolls is a steamier affair than is usual from the Coen brothers, but some scant scenes of grownup sexuality are outnumbered by juvenile gags about dildos. With Pascal and Damon portraying cartoonish characters in brief cameos, the film clearly aims to be nothing more than a silly romp. (The runtime is an undemanding 83 minutes.) But whether it is the one-note henchmen or the cutesy transitions from one scene to the next — sometimes the image flips around or folds in on itself — Drive-Away Dolls is frantic rather than inspired, a caper with no sense of the truly madcap.

Production company: Working Title

International distribution: Universal Pictures International

Producers: Robert Graf, Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner 

Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Tricia Cooke

Cinematography: Ari Wegner

Production design: Yong Ok Lee

Editing: Tricia Cooke

Music: Carter Burwell

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