Drive-Away Dolls

Drive-Away Dolls

2024, R, 84 min. Directed by Ethan Coen. Starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, Colman Domingo, Bill Camp, Matt Damon.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Feb. 23, 2024

With a reunion in the works, the solo careers of Joel and Ethan Coen might end up being more of a speed bump than a permanent breakup. If so, that makes their individual projects a fascinating insight into the perspective each sibling brings to the alchemy of the Coen brothers. And that makes Drive-Away Dolls – the second film by Ethan Coen following 2022 documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, and one co-written by wife and regular editor Tricia Cooke – a fascinating insight into his stylings, all the more so because of how little it seems to work.

Marian (Blockers breakout Viswanathan) needs a break. Still reeling from a bad breakup, she sets her sights on a trip to Florida and a relaxing time away from work. But Jamie (Qualley) needs a break too; after getting kicked out of her apartment by ex-girlfriend Sukie (Feldstein), Jamie convinces Marian to join her on a cross-country road trip for a local drive-away service. As they continue south, Jamie tries to get Marian to loosen up sexually and embrace more casual relationships, but their plans for a life-changing vacation are upended when they discover a mysterious briefcase in the trunk of their car.

From the opening scene, we recognize that Drive-Away Dolls is meant to follow in the footsteps of some of the iconic Coen Brothers screwball comedies. A character is murdered with a corkscrew to the neck; characters rush onscreen with a handsaw extended comically above their heads. The purpose of Drive-Away Dolls seems to be to craft a story of sexual liberation against the backdrop of the 1990s, but while that idea may sound fun on paper, the film is surprisingly devoid of humor. In fact, it’s kind of a slog.

Granted, neither actor gives anything less than their full effort in the film. Viswanathan – coming off the heels of several delightful seasons of Miracle Workers with Daniel Radcliffe – remains one of Hollywood’s best-kept comedic secrets. Meanwhile, Qualley does her best to find a real human being underneath the Southern drawl and oversexed dialogue. The results may not be there, but we never doubt the talent for a second, and there are worse detours for an actor in Hollywood than working with a Coen Brother.

But so much of the film feels internally at odds with itself. At times both sexually exploitative and progressive, shocking and surprisingly neutered, Drive-Away Dolls seems unsure of its own energy. There are times when it seems to build to the screwball comedy vibes of films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but the relatively narrow scope of the hypersexualized story fights silliness at every turn. Only Bill Camp – who steals each of his few scenes as the bedraggled owner of a rental car company – offers us any kind of consistent tone or fine-tuned performance.

Then again, maybe the 1990s are still the uncanny valley for comedies. Caught somewhere between the modern and the historic, the setting of Drive-Away Dolls never affords the film a kind of period specificity that might’ve elevated the comedy. Instead of providing the script with a kind of shared cultural shorthand – fashion, language, and customs that audiences could rally around – the Nineties setting leaves the whole affair feeling a bit muted and nonspecific.

Perhaps time will be kind to Drive-Away Dolls; the cast of rising stars seems destined for greatness, and the setting will sharpen into focus the farther we move away from the decade. But it’s hard not to feel that Drive-Away Dollsis the sum of its production history: a decades-old concept that missed its window for relevance. Let’s hope that the Coen Brothers are not the competitive sort – if rumors of a reunion are true, then Joel’s production of The Tragedy of Macbeth certainly gives him the solo bragging rights at family dinners.

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More Ethan Coen Films
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen brothers head West, but it's a bumpy ride

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 16, 2018

Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers celebrate and eviscerate old Hollywood

Marc Savlov, Feb. 5, 2016

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Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen, Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, Colman Domingo, Bill Camp, Matt Damon

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