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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Drive-Away Dolls"

Film still from Drive-Away Dolls (2024), featuring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan [right].
Drive-Away Dolls, Working Title Films/Focus Features, 2024.
Film still from Drive-Away Dolls (2024), featuring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan [right].


After 40 years of collaboration, the Coen brothers have now directed their first features without the other. Joel made The Tragedy of Macbeth a couple years ago, and now we have Ethan’s Drive-Away Dolls, and although they couldn’t be more different, they represent the Coens in microcosm: One is a stylish spin on a timeless tale of ambition begetting violence, the other is a bug-eyed crime caper, the two formulas they’ve revisited most frequently in their careers.

If you didn’t know an honest-to-god Coen brother made Drive-Away Dolls, you’d certainly think whoever had made it was deeply indebted (it often feels like warmed-over leftovers from Fargo, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski). Coen wrote the film with his wife, Tricia Cooke, and they first considered making it more than 20 years ago with Allison Anders in the director’s chair. Imagining that version of the movie is a thought experiment more engaging than the movie we have now.

It begins at the dawn of the millennium, when two 20-something lesbian friends sign up for a drive-away service to take a joy ride from Philadelphia to Tallahassee. Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is a libidinous Texas spitfire who can’t keep a job or a girlfriend. Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) is a joyless office drone who’s always being told she’s too uptight. Jamie insists that all Marian needs is a bit of fun and a lot of sex.

The women are given a bucket-of-bolts Dodge Aries, which turns out to be carrying precious (and illegal) cargo not meant for them. As Marian and Jamie are pursued across state lines (and they, of course, don’t realize they’re being pursued until halfway through the film), we’re introduced to a deep bench of wacky supporting players: a slick crime kingpin (Colman Domingo), a pair of squabbling hitmen (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson), a vindictive ex-girlfriend who’s also a cop (Beanie Feldstein), plus Matt Damon as a conservative senator trying to bury past dalliances and Pedro Pascal as a severed head on ice.

So many Coen familiars here, from slack-jawed goons to yokels who spout accidental profundities about the nature of humanity to a loopy plot in which a bunch of people die over the stupidest possible thing. So why doesn’t Drive-Away Dolls ever achieve liftoff?

Perhaps the answer is in the editing, which is sometimes so slapdash that scenes are practically scotch-taped together with abysmal cartoon scene transitions that look like they were borrowed from a ’90s sitcom. The movie barely clocks in at 80 minutes, and it sometimes plays as if entire chunks of the movie have been cleaved out: It sets up a number of wild subplots that it either abruptly resolves or drops completely before they can ever develop true comedic or violent momentum. Qualley’s performance is also a big miscalculation: She has been given mile-a-minute dialogue and a cartoonish Texan twang, and they make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

There are some good things in Drive-Away Dolls. It’s gleefully and unapologetically queer. Geraldine Viswanathan gives such great deadpan that the Coens should call on her again. The underrated Bill Camp has an amusing narrative thread as another in a long line of Coen men who are minding their own business behind a counter and get pulled into violence. But sitting through it, all I could think was, I can’t wait for Joel and Ethan to get back together.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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