Movies & TV / Reviews

Drive-Away Dolls Review

February 26, 2024 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Drive-Away Dolls Image Credit; Focus Features
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Drive-Away Dolls Review  

Directed by: Ethan Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke

Margaret Qualley – Jamie
Geraldine Viswanathan – Marian
Beanie Feldstein – Sukie
Joey Slotnick – Arliss
C.J. Wilson – Flint
Colman Domingo – The Chief
Pedro Pascal – The Collector
Bill Camp – Curlie

Image Credit: Focus Features

Running Time: 84 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content.

It’s hard to make an intentional B-movie. Films that revel in the kind of trashy and tropey sensibilities that exemplify the label are usually the domain of those without resources to do something bigger – the Roger Cormans, Jon Waters, and William Castles of the world. It’s a tricky thing when someone from the Hollywood system tries to evoke that feel, and often comes off as pretentious or, at the very least, inauthentic.

But if there’s any director with studio cache who can pull it off, it would be Ethan Coen. Coen is best known for his collaborations with his brother Joel, and they’ve tapped into the quirky B film palette many times. That makes Ethan well-suited for Drive-Away Dolls, the messily satisfying ball of sex comedy, road trip film and crime caper that is his first directed feature without his brother.

Drive-Away Dolls is co-written by Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke, a queer woman (and regular Coens script editor) whose imprint you can see almost from the jump. Following a sequence in which a man (Pedro Pascal in one of a number of A-list cameos) is dispatched for a briefcase he’s holding, we open up in 1999 to Jamie (Qualley) in the middle of passionate sex with a girl, which she is trying to keep quiet while fielding a phone call from her girlfriend, a cop named Sukie (Feldstein). Soon newly single, she joins her best friend (and fellow lesbian) Marian on a road trip to Tallahassee to visit Marian’s aunt.

The two decide to travel via driveaway – delivering a car for hire – down to Florida. Along the way, Jamie seeks to get the buttoned-up Marian laid and find some sexual exploits of her own. One problem that they aren’t aware of: their driveaway car ends up with the mysterious briefcase inside of it. That sets a pair of squabbling thugs under the employ of a gangster (Domingo) after them to try and retrieve the briefcase. Suffice it to say, this is going to be a wild trip for all involved.

Ethan Coen is no stranger to small-time crime capers involving dim-witted characters or ones that inherently make bad decisions. The Coens’ films like Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers, and Burn After Reading are such an indelible part of pop culture that there is an actual tabletop roleplaying game called Fiasco that is built around creating your own Coen-style crime story. (I heartily recommend the game, by the way).

Coen takes those films’ motifs and gives them a very horny, queer take with Drive-Away Dolls. Jamie and Marian fit very much with the characters of those other films; Jamie is flawed in the extreme and Marian is sensible but too stuffy for her own good. It’s an archetypal relationship that allows Qualley and Viswanathan to play off each other’s energy in a dynamic that feels extremely authentic to queer lives of that age, particularly in the 1990s.

Jamie is hardly the most likable protagonist; taken on her own she is a sketch of ‘90s riot girrl traits, self-confidence and voracious sexuality that add up to the kind of person you might like to talk to for a little while, but otherwise keep at a distance. It’s Qualley’s considerable charm that allows her to be tolerable at all at first, while her chemistry with Viswanathan gives us the chance to see Jamie for the messy bitch she is while also understanding that there’s probably more under the surface – something that holds true once we move into the last act and Jamie is forced to reckon with some of her mistakes.

It should be said that the plot twists in this are wild. Coen and Cooke go full-bore with the exploitation sensibilities, drawing a major plot point from a particular real-life 1960s visual artist for the “what’s in the briefcase?” mystery in a move that will almost certainly be an immediate movie-killer for many. But the audacity somehow works; it feels like the kind of wacky peculiarity that we’ve seen in perhaps more traditional ways in the Coen Brothers’ collaborative crime comedies, just amped up to the nth degree.

Also sure to be divisive is the editing. While the film’s pacing is solid and the 84-minute runtime keeps things from meandering, Coen goes on a lot of episodic detours and some of the edits are intentionally shlocky. It feels like it’s going hard for a self-aware cult classic sort of feel and it’s not always successful. Fortunately, the moments where it works outweigh the ones where it trips up on trying too hard.

It also helps that the supporting cast is all delivering fine work. Domingo makes his underwritten mobster character charming, while Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson get a lot of snipey banter that brings a lot of laughs. There are a couple of other surprise cameos, one of which works well in the third act and another which is relegated to psychedelic flashbacks and is a bit less interesting than it could have been. Beanie Feldstein gets to be funny and pissy as Sukie, showing up again toward the end for a pivotal moment.

Coen does occasionally struggle to fit all the moving pieces together; streamlining the Goons’ chase and cutting a couple of flashback moments would have done this film a world of good, as there sometimes seems to be moments that the script throws in just because it thinks it needs to gonzo for the sake of being gonzo. But the unabashedly lesbian friendship at the heart of the movie keeps things moving forward, giving queer audiences a trashy but fun little idiot crime caper to call its own.

The final score: review Good
The 411
A Raising Arizona for queer audiences, Drive-Away Dolls is a polarizing but often very fun crime caper that isn't afraid to wallow in B-movie sensibilities. A strong cast is bolstered by a few fun cameos and some truly wild plot twists, and while the film sometimes gets too extra for its own good there's still a lot of enjoyment to be had. This is very much a "love it or hate it" kind of movie but if you're willing to vibe with it and forgive a few significant strange choices, the highs end up overcoming the lows to a significant degree.

article topics :

Drive-Away Dolls, Jeremy Thomas