DRIVE AWAY DOLLS. A Road-Trip Crime Caper Revolving Around Fun, Farce, and Phalluses

Ethan Coen goes solo with a bumpy road-trip, propelled by the charms of Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan

Even the most sensible adults need to blow off some steam now and then. A night where a more juvenile, care-free attitude comes to the fore, even if it means a hangover the next day. Drive Away Dolls feels tantamount to Ethan Coen (yes, he of the seminal, and award winning brothers Coen), cutting loose, with a bawdy, fun, and yet very messy solo directorial feature.

Set in the early 90s, Drive Away Dolls kicks off with some murderous intrigue, before introducing us to a pair of girls, destined to be swept up in a this glimpsed criminal enterprise due to some ill fated timing. Jamie (Margaret Qualley, Sanctuary, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) whose sexual philandering lead to her being dumped (and evicted) by her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart). Her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, Bad Education, Blockers) is still down after a breakup with her own girlfriend two years earlier. As she plans a trip to visit family in Tallahassee, Jamie sees an opportunity to escape the heat by getting out of town, and more importantly to help draw Marian out of her post-breakup shell. A plan largely centered around getting them both laid. They sign-up for a “drive-away”, taking receipt of a care and driving it one-way to it’s owner in Florida, a route plotted out by Jamie to include a series of stops at standout lesbian bars along the way. Due to mistaken identity, they are given a car that is meant for someone else. The girls setoff and soon, a pair of hoodlums are on their trail looking to reclaim their merchandise hidden in their trunk. A screw-ball, road-trip meets crime caper, centered around friendship, fun, farce, and phalluses.

The film marks a different kind of collaboration for Coen, one forged alongside his wife (and editor) Tricia Cooke, whose own sexuality and personal history has largely informed the film’s characters, themes, and story. Their script is imbued with that madcap sensibility that underpins many of his crime capers, certainly in the wheelhouse of Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading, along with a slathering of tongue-in-cheek lesbian humor. A project gestating for many years, finally coming to fruition, Drive Away Dolls does somewhat feel like a film that could have been better framed within the era in which it is set. A backdrop of the looming specter of Y2K, the end of the Clinton administration seems to hint at the end of an era. A last huzzah for the liberal and liberated, before the right rises once again. It flirts with some of the prejudice that tinged the 90s south, but it never really takes hold of the film or fate of these characters, the good time takes precedence. Where the film is more successful is in channeling Cooke’s own memories of her time in the New York 80s queer scene. Showcasing the various bars and clubs that offered not just sanctuary, but celebration for the lesbian community. Between this and Bottoms last year, it’s great to see this demographic getting to have some fun on screen.

The core of the film is this odd-couple pairing of a sexually liberated lesbian and her more stoic companion. There’s a rather sweet quality to their deepening understanding as the film rolls along that goes a long way to endearing the film to its audience. Qualley’s Jamie is bawdy fun, with a libido as loose as her mouth. Her introduction comes while fully committed to an act of cunnilingus, and her Texas-twang, and loose, punkish attitude round out much of what you need to know. On paper, something of a caricature, but Qualley gives her a level of gusto, honesty, and warmth. Marian’s entrance comes more appropriately framed by an office cubicle rather than a woman’s thighs. Viswanathan plays the “straight-guy” in this affair, but remains us again what a quietly potent comedic force she is. Around them is a smorgasbord of talent, including Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, Colman Domingo, and Matt Damon. They all deliver, but in a way all feel a little lost in the melee. Bill Camp, bringing a brilliant sardonic edge to his few scenes, highlights a tonal contrast the rest of the film could do with more of.

This highlights some of the other weaker elements of the film, largely how quickly (84 minutes), and slickly things move along. The humor unfurls with a face pace, but character moments and plot points unfurl with similar wild abandon. Aside from a few plot hijinks, the stakes never really manifest, compounded by the commitment to more farcical elements. On top of this are frenetic cuts, swipes, transitions, and needle drops, that make for a structural and visual experience that matches the erratic tone of the narrative. In short, it’s all laid on a little too thick. You can appreciate the sense of adventure, but a little less could have resulted in the film being all the more effective.

There’s probably plenty to be gleamed from the psyche of the Coen siblings when comparing their indulgences when flying solo. The goofy punch of color and comedy in Drive Away Dolls is a marked contrast to the austere and brooding tone of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Together, their eclectic qualities undeniably marry into something greater, but it’s hard to overly scrutinize each indulging in their own nature. As road-trips go, it’s a bit of a bumpy one, with a lack of control and focus, a slathering of quirks, and tonal issues making for a messy affair. Despite this, Drive Away Dolls is still a fun time, and recent interviews have revealed a second chapter of their adventures is about to begin filming, and with the pairing of Qualley and Viswanathan in the drivers seat, count me in for another ride.

Drive-Away Dolls Opens nationwide February 23

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