After ‘Drive-Away Dolls,’ Ethan Coen Should Never Direct a Film Alone Again

Focus Features
Focus Features

“Love is a sleigh ride to Hell,” reads a graffiti message in Drive-Away Dolls, and so too is this comedy, which suggests that Joel and Ethan Coen’s long-time creative partnership was not an equal one. Directed solely by Ethan, who co-wrote its screenplay with wife Tricia Cooke, this dire attempt at a zany lesbian road-trip saga strives so hard for hilarity that its failure in that regard is impressively depressing. Aiming for ribald and risqué and coming up with only ruinous humorlessness, it may be the longest 84 minutes anyone will spend in a theater this year.

Set in 1999—because its women-on-the-run story would crumble even more calamitously (if, mercifully, more quickly) if its protagonists had smartphones—Drive-Away Dolls (February 23, in theaters) opens with an answering machine message from Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) that interrupts Jamie (Margaret Qualley) performing cunnilingus on one of her infinite paramours. Jamie and this evening’s lover ooh, aah, and argh with cartoonish abandon; the madcap atmosphere is already so hysterical, and completely established, that the film sabotages any chance at building amusing momentum or mania. Hitting its tonal peak right out of the gate, it can only maintain its over-the-top exaggeration. That it does, which might be more pleasurable if Coen and Cooke’s script didn’t boast one off-puttingly grating caricature after another.

At the top of that list is Jamie, who, despite residing in the City of Brotherly Love, is from Fort Worth. How or why Jamie relocated to Philadelphia is a detail too trivial for Drive-Away Dolls; its prime fixation is on Jamie’s thick and unconvincing Texas drawl, her habit of saying cute-pie-isms like “honey darlin’” and “honey babe” and “honey doll,” and talking incessantly and graphically about her lesbian lust. Qualley is a charming actress in the right role, but this isn’t it. Coen and Cooke ask her to ham it up as a motormouth whose two defining traits are that she’s obsessed with screwing as many people as possible and she doesn’t like to read. The result is that Jamie comes off as a smug airhead and, worse, like someone pretending to be wild and kooky both in and out of the sack. The more she tries to be a freewheeling sexual dynamo who’s eager to force others to see—and therefore accept—her homosexuality, the more she resonates as a pose masquerading as an actual character.

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Whereas Jamie is a hotblooded spitfire, Marian is a buttoned-up prude who exasperatedly puts up with her male coworkers’ date requests and hasn’t gotten laid in four years. They’re opposites who, at least in Marian’s case, are attracted to each other; yet Drive-Away Dolls does nothing to explain why they’re friends, much less justify Jamie’s impromptu decision to accompany Marian on a trek south to Tallahassee, Florida, to visit her aunt. Butting into this journey, Jamie recommends they get a “drive-away car” (i.e. a one-way rental that’s dropped off at a destination) from a business run by Curlie (Bill Camp). In a twist that’s less cheekily convenient than just plain lazy, Curlie has at this very moment been told by a criminal figure known as the Chief (Colman Domingo) that two employees will be arriving to pick up a car with a package in its trunk that’s bound for Tallahassee. When Jamie and Marian show up instead, Curlie mistakenly rents them the vehicle, thus compelling the Chief to send his henchmen, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), after them.

A photo including a still from the film Drive-Away Dolls
Focus Features

This is a contrived set-up, yet the problem isn’t that it’s unbelievable; it’s that it’s orchestrated with capital-W Wackiness that suffocates any actual laughs. Arliss and Flint are a typical-Coen Brothers pair of bickering criminals, and a prologue in which Pedro Pascal is brutally murdered in an alleyway by a waiter—a sequence full of canted angles and bug-eyed expressions—strives for the siblings’ trademark blend of comedy and horror. Incapable of modulating its pitch, however, the proceedings almost immediately lose their bearings. That continues once Jamie and Marian hit the road, initially unaware that they’re in possession of the shiny silver attaché case that Pascal’s collector was trying to sell, as well as another smoking box with even more surprising contents.

A photo including a still from the film Drive-Away Dolls
Focus Features

During the course of their excursion, Jamie convinces Marian to visit “dyke bars” with corny names, spend a night hooking up with an all-lesbian soccer team, and loosen up and have some fun rather than sit in their motel rooms reading Henry James’ novella The Europeans—whose story (about fish-out-of-water 19th-century Europeans in New England) Coen and Cooke vainly strive to echo with this tale of lesbians in the conservative South. Unfortunately, just as they’re incapable of making their carnal chaos witty, they fall flat in trying to add a political element to their material, be it with digs at Marian for formerly dating a Ralph Nader supporter, or via the revelation that the person who’s really after the briefcase is Senator Gary Channel (Matt Damon), a family-values Republican in the process of seeking re-election who has a personal stake in the goods he’s trying to procure.

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Whether it’s the sight of Beanie Feldstein’s stridently angry cop trying to unscrew a “wall dildo” from her hallway, recurring ’60s-style interludes of swirling colors, silhouettes, and images (including a cameoing Miley Cyrus), or scene transitions in which the frame spins, folds. and thuds, Drive-Away Dolls tries so hard for uninhibited sapphic absurdity that its every new bit of outrageousness is like nails on a chalkboard. Qualley and Viswanathan are neither a sharp nor steamy duo, their chemistry as labored as everything else in this misfire. Domingo, Pascal, Camp, and Damon, meanwhile, are given nothing with which to work and, accordingly, offer next-to-nothing in return. In terms of wasting talent, few recent theatrical offerings can match this one.

Whereas Joel’s 2021 stand-alone directorial effort The Tragedy of Macbeth was a masterful Shakespearean drama, the inept Drive-Away Dolls implies that Ethan’s goofier instincts are best when tempered by his sibling’s gravity. Not that grimness would have salvaged this mess, which plays more like a derivative, second-rate Coen-esque farce than like the real thing.

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