‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Review: A Fun and Crazy Screwball Ride

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Review: A Fun and Crazy Screwball Ride

The Coen Brothers are a household name, collaborating on darkly funny, violent cinema beginning four decades ago with Blood Simple. Since then, they’ve won Oscars for their Fargo screenplay and for writing, directing, and producing No Country for Old Men. Joel Coen made his first film without his brother in 2021, the black-and-white Shakespearean adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth, which felt distinctly different from what audiences have to come to expect from this famous duo. Ethan’s first narrative solo effort feels very much like classic Coen Brothers fare, though not quite as fine-tuned or enduring as some of the duo’s most prolific work.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are friends but couldn’t be more different. Jamie is seeking some respite after her police officer girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) finds out she’s cheating on her. The considerably more subdued and reserved Marian reluctantly earns herself an unwanted companion on her drive down to Tallahassee to see her aunt. Their idea to drive a car that needs to be brought somewhere else inadvertently puts them in the crosshairs of a crime job that makes them the target of some very angry and sleep-deprived henchmen.

Drive-Away Dolls
(L to R) Margaret Qualley as “Jamie” and Geraldine Viswanathan as “Marian” in director Ethan Coen’s DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Coen, with his wife Tricia Cooke, who has worked frequently on editing for her brother and brother-in-law’s films dating back to Miller’s Crossing in 1990, would choose crime as the subject of their script. The identities of the characters aren’t fully revealed, with Pedro Pascal credited as The Collector, Colman Domingo as The Chief, and C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick as Flint and Arliss, collectively The Goons. Jamie and Marian are the ones whose names matter since this is their story, though they’re rarely aware of what’s actually going on, leading them to act far more casually and irresponsibly than they might if they truly understood the gravity of their situation.

Described by Coen and Cooke as a “lesbian road trip project” they’ve been working on for decades, this film feels like a head trip with its occasional bursts of hallucinogenic interludes that interrupt the rather deranged action. Set in 1999, this film’s world finds Jamie as an entirely unsubtle woman living her truth, loudly seeking out lesbian bars in the South in the lobby of their seedy motel. The absence of cell phones makes it easier for things to spiral out of control since the hapless henchmen can only use outdated information to track the women who have unwittingly made their lives much more difficult but are just as clueless about what’s going on.

Drive-Away Dolls
(L to R) Colman Domingo as “The Chief”, C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick as “The Goons” in director Ethan Coen’s DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features

Qualley and Viswanathan are both superb actresses regularly turning in multiple top-tier performances, with Qualley impressing in Maid, Stars at Noon, and Sanctuary and Viswanathan in Miracle Workers: End Times, The Beanie Bubble, and 7 Days in just the past few years alone. Together, they’re a formidable pair, each exhibiting radically different amounts of energy. Qualley dials up her accent to highlight the comedic nature of her role, while Viswanathan portrays someone who’s very buttoned-up and hardly eager to be pulled out of her shell. In the supporting cast, Domingo and Slotnick are highlights, as is Feldstein in a perfectly-calibrated role. Bill Camp has a hilariously memorable small part as the operator of the drive-away shop.

Running just eighty-four minutes, Drive-Away Dolls feels like the start of something interesting that doesn’t have quite enough time to truly manifest itself. It alternates between feeling rushed and underdeveloped and risking overexposure on certain storylines. The dialogue is witty and highly entertaining, and Qualley and Viswanathan are firing on all cylinders. The entire product doesn’t feel quite as suave or satisfying, but it certainly has its moments.

Grade: B

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Drive-Away Dolls opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 23rd.

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