Credit: Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Drive-Away Dolls — Ethan Coen

February 21, 2024

When it was released back in late 2021, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, the director’s first feature film since the dissolution of the long, fruitful filmmaking partnership with his younger brother, was popularly met with some variation of the sentiment “Guess Ethan is the funny one.” With its rigid formalism, oppressive fatalism, and treatment of the Bard’s murderous and petty schemers like ants scurrying under a magnifying glass, the film played like an undiluted essay on predetermination, morality, and the pitilessness of the universe — long staples of the brothers’ filmography — only with none of the customary digressions, black humor, or prickly humanity. Specious assumptions commenced on who deserved credit for which part of the brothers’ creative alchemy, and that won’t abate much with the arrival of Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen’s first narrative feature as sole director. A queer road comedy and crime caper tickled by its own impropriety and persnickety wordplay, the film — written by Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke — has many of the hallmarks of a “Coen brother” film, but there’s also a real sense of liberation here along with a lack of fastidiousness and discipline which makes it its own unique and ungainly animal. For both good and ill, it feels like a film made by someone taking in deep breaths of freedom for perhaps the first time.

After a violent prologue involving the theft of a mysterious briefcase — a note of caution to those arriving late to the theater, as they risk missing the entire performance of one the film’s more recognizable stars — that sets the story in motion, we meet mismatched friends and platonic lesbians Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), both in desperate need of a scenery change. Jamie has just been kicked out of her apartment by her cop-girlfriend, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), after being caught sleeping around. Marian, still smarting after her ex ran off to work for the Nader presidential campaign (the film is set in 1999, apparently because smartphones and GPS have sapped much of the fun out of exploring America’s highways and byways), just wants to escape the Philadelphia winter to stay with her aunt in Tallahassee, which is really all the excuse Jamie needs to tag along. Without a car of her own, Marian secures a vehicle from a drive-away car company — a quaintly archaic business where you transport a car to another part of the country on behalf of its owner, trading your services behind the wheel in exchange for a reduced rental fee — owned by a shady go-between named Curlie (Bill Camp, giving magnificently bone dry line readings). And through a series of “only in the movies” comedic miscommunications, the two women drive off in the wrong car, unaware that the previously seen briefcase is tucked away next to the spare tire in the trunk. When the two hired goons (Joey Slotnick and CJ Wilson, doing a variation on Buscemi and Stormare’s chatterbox and stoically imposing routine from Fargo) expected to drive the car show up at Curlie’s and find the vehicle missing, it fires off a starter’s pistol on a madcap chase down the Eastern Seaboard, with the two young women oblivious to the fact that they’re being pursued by armed killers and carrying precious cargo belonging to very powerful individuals. Not that it’s clear whether that knowledge would even deter Jamie from trying to get laid or attempting to drag Marian out of her shell…

Borrowing the manic rhythms and rapid-fire cadence of a ’30s screwball comedy (albeit with way more oral sex and dildos), much of the film’s comedic energy stems from the oil-and-water dynamic between Jamie and Marian. With a chopped-off haircut, favoring spiked collars and wallet chains, and speaking in an exaggerated southern grunt, Qualley presents as the more conventionally butch and sexually adventurous of the two (the character possesses a near-encyclopedic knowledge of every lesbian bar between Delaware County and Fort Myers), while the buttoned-down Viswanathan clings to romantic notions of true love, preferring to spend an unassuming evening in bed reading Henry James’ The Europeans than picking up a stranger at the bar. Observing her up-tight friend’s discomfort with casual sex — the two crash a “basement makeout party” where the women are passed around a female college soccer team, leading one male critic at my screening to shamelessly yell at the screen “I want to attend that party” — Jamie soon takes it upon herself to personally expand Marian’s horizons, and finds a little love herself in the process. Drive-Away Dolls is an unapologetically lowbrow film (e.g. Jamie is introduced sitting on someone’s face), but the ways in which it demystifies not just sex between women but the inherent chemistry between its two leads is quietly radical for a — broad no pun intended — studio comedy; particularly, as the film has zero interest in being some sort of a flagbearer for the cause or pronouncing itself as groundbreaking. Instead, Drive-Away Dolls merely recognizes the appeal of watching two beautiful people on the run falling into bed with one another, never shying away from the physiology while still avoiding any creepiness (that Cooke has recently come out as a lesbian herself probably helps mitigate the whole “male gaze” of it all).

With its bickering criminals, heavily stylized performances, and a foreboding Carter Burwell score, Drive-Away Dolls plays a bit like Coen brothers’ karaoke, which makes all the sense in the world but also speaks to how slightly “off” the film feels. Even with a slim 84-minute runtime and being relatively straightforward as a narrative, the film meanders; there’s an inelegance to its construction, with no real urgency on a per-scene or overarching basis. The film uses sudden seriocomic bursts of violence to write itself out of dead-ends, with none of the mounting dread or watchmaker’s precision of the filmmaker’s earlier, better films. Coen’s compositions are unrefined at times, settling for visually functional rather than the practically Kubrickian control of the frame we’ve come to expect over the years. Drive-Away Dolls carries itself more like an ambitious effort from a first-time filmmaker than the work of someone who won an Academy Award for co-directing No Country for Old Men, which itself feels telling. The film (which was also edited by Cooke) incorporates a series of knowingly jarring transitions to get us from scene to scene, with shots flipping across the screen as though we were leafing through the pages of a book, often accompanied by a loud “swoosh” sound effect. It also introduces colorful, “far out” interstitial material, which, in one memorable instance, finds the camera zooming in on a floating pizza where the pepperonis turn into the logos for the Democratic and Republican party — while we may never know for certain that Ethan is the “funny one,” he certainly seems to be the bigger fan of stoner humor. It’s by no means the first time a Coen film has included inscrutable stylistic swings, but the execution is rarely this lacking (or, to be fair, rarely this earthy and good-natured). It’s almost as if — to indulge a little armchair psychoanalysis — the guard rails have been removed without a more overbearing voice around to shoot down any idea as unworthy or juvenile.

Like The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive-Away Dolls feels under-realized, or at least held back in some way, which is both frustrating and kind of endearing. At the very least, it’s instructive. The ways in which Joel and Ethan complimented one another as a directing unit has long been one of the great unsolved mysteries of filmmaking, particularly with the Coens presenting a unified front as loath to discuss their process with the media (although, for the record, Ethan has appeared relatively gregarious and relatable as part of this film’s press tour, so it’s possible we’ve solved that mystery as well). Yet, in the ways their respective solo outings are deficient, it reveals much about the other’s contributions. Joel’s got the stronger eye, Ethan the better feel for ornate banter. One of them favors aestheticized bloodletting, the other goofy non-sequiturs and moments of unexpected kindness. Older brother is probably responsible for the vice-like anxiety in A Serious Man, younger brother definitely gets credit for including the nude sunbathing next door neighbor and is probably 70/30 on the Jefferson Airplane. The films of Joel and Ethan Coen, made independently of one another, make the argument for a brother-sized void which, should it ever be filled, would surely foretell a return to semi-regular masterpieces.

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen;  CAST: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, Matt Damon;  DISTRIBUTOR: Focus Features;  IN THEATERS: February 23;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 24 min.