Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls Stalls Out

Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls Stalls Out

There are genuine midnight movies—scrappy pictures often made on the cheap, with a sick sense of humor, that get audiences revved up on their sheer disreputability—and phony ones, movies that apply every tenet of the formula but never achieve that elusive seedy midnight vibe. Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls is the latter. It tries to be sexy but isn’t; it strives for screwball energy but only ends up being insufferably madcap; it works hard to serve up lashings of black humor, in the tradition of older Coen Brothers movies like Raising Arizona, but you can hear the wheels whirring behind every joke. Nearly every note of this alleged romp rings false—except for the presence of one actor, a performer who seems to have been air-dropped from a better, much groovier movie.

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It’s 1999 Philadelphia. Margaret Qualley is Jamie, a devil-may-care lesbian who’s so randy she can’t help cheating on her live-in girlfriend, Beanie Feldstein’s Sukie, a cop. Jamie’s exhibitionist tendencies instigate a blowup with Sukie, who kicks her out of their apartment. Jamie seeks solace with her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), a good girl who favors bow blouses and uptight office suits, and who hasn’t had sex in years. Marian is planning a getaway to visit her aunt in Tallahassee for some quiet birdwatching; Jamie decides to tag along, talking her friend into getting a driveaway car for the trip, a mode of transportation that won’t cost them a cent. Unbeknownst to them, the trunk of the Dodge Aries they procure for the trip contains a metal briefcase full of hot cargo, the specifics of which aren’t revealed until the movie’s third act.

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By that point we’re supposed to be primed for some sort of riotous conclusion that will have made the whole escapade worthwhile, but no dice. Drive-Away Dolls is Ethan Coen’s first solo fiction feature. (He also directed the 2022 documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.) He co-wrote the script with Tricia Cooke, his wife and a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, who identifies as queer. But if the movie toils away at being hilarious and progressive, it ends up being neither. There’s lots of dildo humor and simulated cunnilingus, things movies in general could use a lot more of these days. Yet it all seems forced: Qualley, in a relatively short career, has made unhinged daffiness her thing, but her prepackaged sass is wearying from the first scene. The movie’s two bumbling heavies (played by C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick), who spend most of the movie chasing after that briefcase, are neither threatening nor funny. And although this enterprise features a handful of generally amusing actors in small roles—Bill Camp, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, even Matt Damon—most of them look a little lost, unsure how they happened to wander into this particular caper.

The single saving grace of Drive-Away Dolls is Viswanathan. She has often been the best thing about the movies she’s appeared in (Cat Person, Blockers), and her unstudied timing works some restorative magic here. Jamie nags at Marian to loosen up and get laid, dragging her to a series of lesbian bars. (One of them is called the Butter Churn, one of the wittiest touches in the movie; there’s also a smarty-tough little chihuahua named Alice B. Toklas, a great tiny-dog name if ever there were one.) Jamie even talks Marian into partaking in a high school soccer team’s group-makeout session, with Linda Ronstadt’s crooning setting the mood. (I will admit, too, to laughing at that one.) Marian is uncomfortable in all of these settings; mostly, she just wants to hang out in the motel room and read Henry James. Yet Viswanathan also conveys Marian’s subterranean longing for connection with another human being, for awesome sex, for the chance to break out and live a little. With little more than a winsome glance she signals that she knows something is missing from her life—she just has no idea how to get it. While Drive-Away Dolls grinds away at advertising how sex-positive it is, Viswanathan quietly sets every scene on fire. She’s the movie’s true bad gal, leaving everyone else in the dust when she hits the gas.

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