Drive-Away Dolls (R) ★★½

Review Date: February 23rd, 2024

When the Coen Brothers announced their (amicable) breakup following the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a great lamentation was heard throughout the population of cineastes. Of course, that wasn't the end of the line for Joel and Ethan as solo artists; it just meant they would be taking a pause from working together. (A pause that was apparently relatively short since they recently announced an impending reunion.) Since then, Joel has released one film - an offbeat interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Following a documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis, Drive-Away Dolls represents Ethan's attempt to move forward without his older sibling. A collaboration with his wife, Tricia Cooke (who has worked in various capacities on several Coen Brothers films and here serves as co-writer, co-producer, editor, and uncredited co-director), Drive-Away Dolls began life with the title of Drive-Away Dykes, and maybe that's all one needs to know about it.

This is not "highbrow" fare, although some bizarre, artsy, psychedelic interludes might argue to the contrary. It's a grade above exploitation cinema, but many of the elements of that genre are evident, including gratuitous nudity and a severed head. Drive-Away Dolls is loosely structured as a road trip, but the characters are so thinly-drawn that they might be tissue paper and the narrative is so flimsy that it threatens to disappear altogether. The chief pleasures to be had are moments when Ethan forcefully reminds us that he is a Coen Brother and/or his wife helps him get a little trashy. (She identifies as queer and various of the movie's visits to lesbian bars are based on her personal experiences.)

This is a lesbian road trip film in which the two principals, free-spirit Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and buttoned-down Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), are headed from Philadelphia to Tallahassee in a "drive-away" car (a rental that the driver transports from Point A to Point B and drops off at Point B). Marian is going to spend some time with her grandmother; Jamie is going with the intention of providing her friend with companionship and support, while hopefully getting laid multiple times along the way. Unbeknownst to Jamie and Marian, they are inadvertently given the wrong car and there's a MacGuffin in the trunk. A gangster known only as The Chief (Colman Domingo) wants the car (or, more specifically, the contents of the trunk) and sends his two henchmen, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), to track down the women. Also involved are Beanie Feldstein as Sukie, Jamie's ex-girlfriend, a dog-hating Philadelphia police officer, and Matt Damon as Senator Gary Channel, whose manhood is never in question.

Vestiges of the Coen Brothers' style are evident in the interactions among The Chief, Arliss, and Flint. The encounter between Sukie and the two henchmen is hilarious in the style of Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy. Some of the banter between Jamie and Marian is raunchily amusing. But it's difficult to ascertain whether there's tangible chemistry between Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan because there's too little time to make the determination. And the story, which starts out insubstantial before devolving into gibberish, doesn't justify even the short 84 minutes it takes to tell. Although there is a devilishly clever twist (the revelation of what the MacGuffin is), the underlying backstory is nonsensical.

I wanted to like Drive-Away Dolls more than I did. I was rooting for it. I occasionally chuckled and laughed hard two or three times, but it seemed like the potential for hilarity was greater than the actuality of it. It's not a terrible movie but it feels like a failed attempt to infuse the Coen Brothers' wry aesthetic into a B-movie tableau. The conception is audacious, to be sure, but the results aren't entirely successful. After watching this and The Tragedy of Macbeth, my verdict is that the Coens work better together than apart.

© 2024 James Berardinelli