Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

Drive-Away Dolls Review

Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

From 1984 to 2018, “the Coen Brothers” gave us 18 feature films and two anthology segments, and while they spanned a wide array of genres, stories, and tones, these movies all still feel like the work of one unified creative intelligence. In 2021 and now in 2024 we have gotten two feature films made only by Joel Coen and only Ethan Coen respectively, and it is amazing how much they both seem now that we have one film from each half of that creative split to compare against the other to have split that seemingly indivisible voice right in half. So amazing that I am vaguely reluctant not to believe this is some kind of extremely high-level experiment they’re running on us. But let’s take them at face value for a moment here, and marvel at how precisely Ethan’s solo narrative feature directorial debut Drive-Away Dolls (his solo directing debut was the documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind from 2022) embodies all of the usual “Coensque” traits not present in Joel’s solo narrative feature directorial debut The Tragedy of Macbeth from earlier this year.

What Joel got: stunningly beautiful formal precision (which includes but isn’t limited to breathtakingly precise cinematography); meta-narratives about genres that tell a story which is more an account of how such stories are told than an example thereof; lots of recognizable character actors given plenty to do in generous-sized parts; editing so tight you couldn’t slide a razor between any two frames if you wanted to; Frances McDormand.* What Ethan got: arch brittle highly rhythmic dialogue; blasts of extremely vulgar language and violently dopey comedy; cartoonish accents; across-the-board great performances from actors willing to look insane and demented on camera but trusting their director not to make them look ridiculous; editing fulla highly visible playful flourishes. The only thing both these movies share is that Carter Burwell’s playing both sides again, providing them with spare musical scores grounded more in a barren mood than anything remotely resembling a recognizable melody.

Or, one could say “turns out Joel was the formalist and Ethan was the comedian,” which gets us most of the way there, though it doesn’t account for why Drive-Away Dolls would break so sharply from the brothers’ shared stylistic control. Before proceeding any further I should probably state that I quite liked Drive-Away Dolls (it’s solidly lower-mid-tier by Coen combined filmography standards), even if The Tragedy of Macbeth is much more my speed. It has an exceptionally strong ensemble cast going for it; indeed this is the main strength of the film, and those regionally defined weirdoes who have been such a treasure in the Coen universe from day one are given particularly fine service by the mannered performances delivered by pretty much everyone with a speaking part I was going to say, “pretty much everyone with a named part,” but then two of my favorite performances in the movie are given by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson as a pair of bantering henchmen credited merely as “The Goon.” Very often it isn’t so much that the movie is funny-funny as that the acting exists in such a wonderfully offbeat mode that it creates an atmosphere of funniness regardless of whether or not all possible jokes within its boundaries are being maximized for forceful impact on target.

Actually, they aren’t always. I think I alluded to this earlier, but what I mean is that ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ isn’t a very polished even neat movie. And I don’t think it’s accidental… or at least not unintentional. If Joel was the one who turned the brothers’ films into some kind of flawlessly calibrated killing machine (or even if he wasn’t), and Ethan (Cooke shares script credit and is the film’s editor) wanted to let things hang out a bit, can you blame her? It’s strange hearing such unmistakably Coenesque lines and cadences in dialogue married to such shaggy-dog filmmaking, but it’s not “bad.” There is a feistiness here that hasn’t shown up in any of Ethan’s movies with Joel since the mid-1990s or ever before that, even (if you squint just right this most resembles “The Big Lebowski” and then “Raising Arizona” among the Coens’ films; Margaret Qualley as one of the two leads is channeling George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). It’s deeply satisfying and fun and sloppily human, and part of me thinks we get there by not making the film so “airtight,” letting the actors vibe onscreen.

And vibe they do! So anyway: The simple version is that Qualley plays Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan whose biggest credit until now was being unmemorable in 2018’s “Blockers,” so clearly Ethan also got some of his brother’s magic power to extract remarkable performances from actors who haven’t had quite this chance before plays Marian, an odd-couple pair of lesbians who drive from Philadelphia to Tallahassee over a few days in 1999. Jamie is a fried Southern collection of slurry energy and casual folk wisdom attached to casual sex and living without consequences; Marian is a stick-in-the-mud prude with an unyielding attachment to rules.

We are not reinventing the wheel here. But these two actors! They are so damn good together! The Coens’ stylized, heightened dialogue comes out of their mouths in two very different registers (Qualley lets her drawling accent carry her through all the whorls in the writing like a slow-moving wave crashing into the shore; Viswanathan plays everything with a clipped, rhythmically pointed quality, almost typing out lines with her mouth more than saying them), and then they let their acting mismatch do some of the personality conflict heavy lifting for them this isn’t just Felix and Oscar (a tension so obligatory by this point I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near its first same-sex incarnation). The movie carries two different energies throughout its entirety, and though we’re still watching a movie, so it’s no surprise where this is going or which of the two characters will “win,” it never feels preordained that it has to get there.

The chemistry between the main characters is so much of what Drive-Away Dolls is that everything else can kind of shrug its shoulders about it and go off on its merry way. The plot, such as it is? Fine. Marian has reasons to be in Tallahassee and Jamie has reasons to get the fuck out of Philly she’s just blown up with a cop named Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) so at Jamie’s urging they take a gig driving a “drive-away” to Florida, i.e. a car that needs to be taken somewhere and left there. Great cover for smuggling something or other, and Curlie the drive-away guy (Bill Camp, exquisitely deadpan even in this small role) has had wires crossed; therefore, Jamie and Marian are smuggling something that was supposed to have been smuggled by those two aforementioned goons, on behalf of crime boss The Chief (Colman Domingo). So our heroines spend the movie dawdling from one town to another, unaware that some very bad men are after them but staying ahead mostly because no human being up through Marian is capable of predicting what zigs and zags Jamie will make on her way to finding the right Southern U.S. lesbian bar where Marian can get laid.

Incredibly unoriginal things, but who cares. What makes Drive-Away Dolls worth watching is that it’s taking all its cues from Jamie and sort of just flopping around from place to place, tumbling into a fun idea backwards and not trying very hard. How much one enjoys this has a lot to do with how much you can tolerate incredibly raunchy dialogue and as-far-as-an-R-rating-can-take-us scenes of cunnilingus (the movie is more or less a spoof of an exploitation film), though I think Qualley’s sheer force of will as Jamie alone should make it universally enjoyable. Coen and Cooke are having a lot of fun being silly, both in the script and in the general construction of the thing: Cooke’s editing contains some scene transitions so cheap and tasteless that they must have been meant to be tasteless beyond any shadow of a doubt, and it’s all supposed to be good-natured bouncing-off-the-walls cartoonishness.

Which gets back to the thing where this does feel awfully slapped together in a lot of ways, and sometimes it can be frustrating how very tossed-off this all is. Cinematographer Ari Wegner is setting up some very pleasing compositions, but her lighting has no obvious rhyme or reason, going from motivated realism to pure nonsense color explosions to dramatic shafts of dusky light to hot and flat and not very interesting at all, without any clear basis in what the script is doing during those moments. The script itself often feels like an approximation of a story that hopes we won’t pay too much attention; sometimes, as in the deeply stupid explanation of what the MacGuffin is, this is pretty obviously on purpose, but sometimes it feels like the writers had an idea at one point in an early draft and got attached to it without remembering why. I have no idea why this is set in 1999, a year that specifically does not fit the one line of dialogue in the whole movie acknowledging a universe outside of this gonzo story (it’s the second-to-last line in the film, so it stands out). Production designer Yong Ok Lee and set decorator Nancy Haigh also do not seem to have understood why this was set in 1999, and have put very little effort whatsoever into getting it right.

I had fun, though. It’s not a great movie, and like I said, they’ve got 84 minutes of credit to make the run time nice and tight so it coasts off the fumes of its own momentum right through that finish line. Coen and Cooke saying they’ve got two more of these ready to go doesn’t sound like a threat, but I think they squeezed this for about as much as it could give before we start seein’ in red. But on its own terms this thing works, and man is it nice to get a crude throwback to ’90s indie films riffing on ’70s exploitation movies all the way here in 2024. You could call this “just a lark,” but it’s not just a lark; every now and then even rare birds need to puff up their chests. Still waitin’ on them brothers to bury whatever hatchet needs buried between ’em, but if Ethan was gotta partner up with somebody else so he could spin around in circles for ninety minutes lettin’ his grubby little imagination out to play in the mud like this one last time before lunch, I’d say it was worth the trade-off.

Watch Drive-Away Dolls For Free On Gomovies.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top