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Review: Drive-Away Dolls Quickly Skids Off the Rails in Trying to Be a B-Movie

The Coen Brothers—just one of four pairs of directors to win an Oscar together—are unquestionably some of our most clever contemporary filmmakers. Like other incredibly creative screenwriters, however, there is such a thing as too smart for your own good. The upcoming film, Drive-Away Dolls, the first by Ethan Coen without the collaboration of his brother Joel, is a stark reminder of this phenomenon.

Courtesy Focus Features

The film follows Jamie (Margaret Qualley), recently broken up with her girlfriend, and her shier friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), as they embark on a topsy-turvy road trip to Tallahassee. The journey goes awry, when they accidentally rent out a vehicle slated for a pair of rather hapless criminals, played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, who are purposefully unsympathetic and as half-witted as any in the Coen Bros lore. Their boss, named simply “Chief,” is played comedically by Colman Domingo, an actor at the height of his game, as is the case with Pedro Pascal, who has a tiny role. A hilarious Beanie Feldman plays Sukie a wily police chief (and Jamie’s angry ex) hot on their trail, while Matt Damon has a late-breaking role as a bumbling Florida politician, and Bill Camp plays the accidental instigator of it all.

As the brisk 84-minute runtime unfolds, Jamie and Marian encounter the criminals themselves. There is also a very mysterious suitcase whose contacts presumably justify much of the outlandish actions by the film’s antagonists. Many of the lines and set pieces are admittedly entertaining, some laugh out loud hilarious, but it is all too set up. Coen and Cooke purportedly set out to make a B-movie, an homage to road trip plus emotional encounter scenarios. Drive-Away Dolls is in reality a C+ movie. It accelerates violently from the beginning and continues to move quickly, again like most Coen Bros. films do. Most live in that liminal space between brilliance and disaster, with only a few touches shoving the vehicle into one or another lane. Here, the story simply drives off the cliff—again, not Thelma & Louise style—but just aimlessly.

The problem for Drive-Away Dolls is that, at the end of the road, there is no there there. The script, by Ethan himself, together with Cooke, is interested only in the outrageous, at times over the top sex, violence, and comedy that signifies a lot of the brothers’ oeuvre, without actually telling a story at all. While the Thelma & Louise nature of the proceedings is evident from the setup, Coen and Cooke decide—perhaps rightfully—not to go there. The problem is that they, instead, go nowhere.

A scene from Drive-Away Dolls (Focus Features, photo by Wilson Webb)

If anything can be gainsaid about the new roads that Coen travels in this film is the exploration of female anxieties, desires, and even the female body. The Coen Bros. have always existed uneasily with interesting female characters, with Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson the noteworthy exception. With the help of his wife, Ethan does break new ground by permitting the fearless Qualley and Viswanathan to each shine, separately and together, with a quiet self-assuredness that exists clearly beneath that surface of anxiety, confusion, and self-preservation.

Slotnick and Wilson are also good as the criminals, but their characters are a pale copy of the ones made iconic by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the 1996 dark comedy classic, Fargo. It feels unintentionally derivative—and essentially like being caught in a highway loop—to return to that theme of so long ago, even if both actors do all they can with a script that can never decide what sort of story it wishes to be. Give or take some questionable and entirely unnecessary accents, anyway.

Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, in Drive-Away Dolls (Focus Features, photo by Wilson Webb)

Talent paves the road not just with the cast, but below the line as well. Carter Burwell delivers another comedic, playful score, reminiscent of his last collaboration with the directing brothers in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ethan’s wife Tricia Cooke is the film’s editor (as well as producer and co-writer), and she keeps the pace moving properly while adding to the comedic element by manipulating the camera’s focus.

By the time Jamie and Marian cross all the state lines and approach their near final destinations, they will have seen their fair share of life-threatening trouble and adventure, with a healthy helping of dark humor on the side. But the road trip romp was a trip to nowhere.

Drive-Away Dolls appears to be some form of homage to Russ Meyer sexploitation films, but one that is just senselessly violent. The film purports to be bawdy, but really is just vulgar. This is what happens—not infrequently—with Coen Bros. films, and Ethan’s first foray without his brother is another example. Good ideas are in abundance, but neither a plot nor a point are. To cover over those potholes, the brothers and now Ethan and his wife have frequently resorted to extremes in hope that the audience will not feel the speed bumps.

This drive is thankfully short.

Talent: A
Story: F
Crafts: B+
Awards Potential: Best Original Screenplay
Box Office Potential: Low
Renewability: None

Overall Score: C+

Focus Features will release Drive Away Dolls in U.S. Theaters on February 23, 2024.


Studio: Focus Features
Principal Cast: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Matt Damon
Director: Ethan Coen
Screenwriter: Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke
Producers: Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke, Robert Graf, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
DP: Ari Wegner, ASC, ACS
Production Design: Yong Ok Lee
Costume Design: Peggy Schnitzer
Editor: Tricia Cooke
Score: Carter Burwell

Twitter: @jdonbirnam
Instagram: @awards_predix

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