DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS: A Mostly Fun Road Trip with a Few Speedbumps

“What’s wrong with Tallahassee? It’s very nice. There’s Spanish moss and live oak.”

Apart from a documentary on rock-n-roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis, Ethan Coen has been the somewhat quieter of the two Coen brothers following their decision to go their creative separate ways. That changes this week with Drive-Away Dolls, the new dark comedy featuring Coen at the writing/directing helm for the first time as a solo act. The movie can rightly be called a lesbian road trip dark comedy that besides offering an assortment of laughs, should clarify (for those who still need clarifying) which brother was the director and which one was the writer. If that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s not. Drive-Away Dolls is a competently made film that, while not ready-made for mainstream success, is certainly destined for cult fandom. It will surprise no one to learn that there are many touches here straight from the Coen universe, and just like with the majority of Coen titles, fans will know who this movie is for and who it isn’t.

In Drive-Away Dolls, reserved Marin (Geraldine Viswanathan) is struggling to get out of her shell and find a woman who gets her. Meanwhile, her friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley) has just broken up with her girlfriend Suki (Beanie Feldstein), leaving her homeless. On a whim, the pair decide to rent a drive-away rental car and head to Tallahassee for a break from their lives. Unbeknownst to them, the car they rented was meant to be picked up by a couple of henchmen (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson), who were tasked with delivering the car and its contents to Tallahassee for their boss (Colman Domingo) and his client (Matt Damon), an image-conscious politician.  

As soon as Drive-Away Dolls starts, it immediately announces itself as a vintage Coen brothers film in many ways.  The world Marin and Jamie exist in has that feeling of a heightened reality that isn’t defined by any one decade. Many of the movie’s cuts, dynamic scene transitions, absurdist humor, and side characters would seem right at home in virtually any comedy film Coen helped create throughout his impressive career. This is especially true in the dialogue that Coen and co-writer/editor wife Tricia Cooke have conjured up, which is easily one of the movie’s strongest assets. Lines such as the freshly single Jamie declaring: “I’ve had it with love. I don’t believe love is relevant to the 21st-century lesbian” are pure Coen and give the movie an energy that fans will latch onto. For all of the familiarity, the Drive-Away Dolls is at its best when focusing on its two differing leads. Marin’s yearning to come out of her shell and Jamie’s sex-positive nature is a good match for these two friends who, despite their occasional frustrations with the other, aren’t willing to let each other go. While it might be tempting to question how a wild card and an introvert could have ever become friends, the pull to each other and the devotion that exists between them may not be upfront in the beginning, but by the end more than speaks for itself. 

The journey Drive-Away Dolls took to the screen was a long one. Coen and Cooke originally conceived of the idea back in the late 90s and came close to getting it before the cameras numerous times before things would fall apart, causing a series of rewrites over the years. It’s these rewrites (which took place over two decades) that account for some of the movie’s shortcomings. Usually, when a script gathers dust for so long, the end result becomes hopelessly dated and generic. That isn’t necessarily the problem with Drive-Away Dolls. But there is a clumsiness to the film that shows up here and there with certain plot points needing to be more sketched out and fleshed out. The mechanics of the screenplay function well enough in terms of conflict, resolution, and overall character development, but one can’t help but suspect some missing components fell by the wayside which perhaps might have made the film soar. I’m sure it must have been a personal triumph for Coen and Cooke to finally see their long-gestating project come to light, but it looks like decades of tinkering and reworking their script has resulted in a closeness to the material that can’t help but suffocate it on occasion.  

Viswanathan and Qualley take their time generating the right kind of chemistry here, but the two eventually develop a shorthand that helps with their respective approaches to the characters. The former plays Marin with a buttoned-up manner and the latter injects Jamie with a go-for-broke approach to life that serves both the actresses and the movie well. Slotnick and Wilson likewise sport such worthy comedic chemistry, that you begin to eagerly await their next scene. Domingo adds an appropriate amount of menace in that Colman Domingo way, while Feldstein is the movie’s secret comedy weapon, generating laughs every minute she’s on screen thanks to a slightly unhinged energy that’s just priceless. Finally, Damon, Miley Cyrus, and Pedro Pescal make the most out of their limited screen time for a trio of wholly enjoyable glorified cameos.

It should have at least been something of a comfort to know that the dissolving of the partnership between the Coen brothers was due to an impasse they faced in their work and not in their personal relationship. Speaking solely for myself, I prefer to feel the passion in the work of my favorite artists and can understand the decision to walk away from the art itself when the desire and drive for it isn’t what it used to be. Even if it doesn’t work as a complete experience, Drive-Away Dolls does contain the kind of excitement that made Coen such a prominent figure in cinema. As far as what the future holds for the filmmaker, well, there’s his next solo directing effort, Honey Don’t already lined up as well as a reunion with brother Joel on a horror project. It’s near impossible to even try to guess the road ahead for Drive-Away Dolls in the face of such intriguing upcoming projects, but there’s enough here to suggest that fans are at the dawn of a new Coen era; one that could very well be worth the trip.

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