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Drive-Away Dolls.jpeg

Review: 'Drive-Away Dolls' Is Lesbian 'Raising Arizona' Lite

By Jason Adams | Film | February 23, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | February 23, 2024 |

Drive-Away Dolls.jpeg

When films are co-directed by a pair of directors I always find myself curious what skills each of the directors is individually bringing to the table—is one good with actors while the other is better at the framing of images? Does one scribble his vivid nightmare premonitions down on a pad beside his bed in the middle of the night, with the other tasked at turning that scratched gobbledegook into their cinema? That kind of thing. And nowhere has my curiosity about this sort of balance raged more intensely than when it’s come to the Coen Brothers, probably the most formidable co-directing team there’s ever been (give or take a Powell & Pressberger anyway).

Which is why the last couple of years of Joel and Ethan’s careers, where the two have diverged for the first time ever to go off and make their own projects, has been especially interesting to folks like me. Joel went and made his serious and severe Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021—stark in its black-and-white imagery and intense in its performance-style, that movie could not possibly be more different from the movie that Ethan has now delivered, this weekend’s deeply goofy lesbian caper Drive-Away Dolls. (Which sidenote was supposed to be called Drive-Away Dykes but the dumb studio blanched at that title.)

Macbeth and Dolls are both totally solid movies! But it seems the brothers really are peanut butter and jelly, in that they are two very different flavors that work fine on their own but, let’s be honest—we prefer them together. Which is why I was happy to read that they will be reteaming soon for a horror flick, after Ethan makes one more movie on his own… which will be, uhh, another lesbian road movie starring Margaret Qualley? Okay. The plan is for a whole trilogy, apparently.

But first, coming as it does before three, we have one, and it is called Drive-Away Dolls. Also a lesbian road movie, also starring Marget Qualley. Joel momentarily tossed aside, Ethan Coen has himself a co-director and writer on this one too though, and the man clearly likes to keep it in the family—here it’s his wife Tricia Cooke, who’s been editing her husband and brother-in-law’s joint ventures since way back circa Miller’s Crossing. And it actually sounds as if much of Drive-Away Dolls can be accredited to Cooke, who is herself queer and who knew the 90s lesbian scene like the front of her hand. And that knowledge definitely gives Drive-Away Dolls a lived-in quality that’s the best thing about it. There is a specificity to its world that, among even its wild larger-than-life swings (of which hoo boy there are many), keeps beating true beneath its chest.

So Qualley plays Jamie, a horned-up Texas gal who loves ‘em quick and leaves ‘em staggering, begging for more—and it needs to be said that this movie is easily the horniest thing a Coen has handled since the sex pillow in Burn After Reading. There are basement orgies left and right! All swagger and unkempt curls, Qualley is a true force of goofball pheromones here, although it admittedly takes a little bit of getting used to, just how cartoony she’s going. It’s a great big Texas-sized performance. So if you’ve been missing the bigness of a Raising Arizona in the Coens filmography as of late, then this movie’s probably the one for you. It is very, very silly.

Jamie’s best friend is also her buttoned-up polar opposite—literally, as when we first meet Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) she’s in an 80s-ladies pussy-bow work-blouse, all ribboned up to there as she deflects the dopey romantic advances of a clueless dingus in her office. Indeed Jamie and Marian are so different that it at times beggars the belief that the two are even friends—a feeling the script inadvertently doubles down on when Jamie learns in shock that Marian hasn’t gotten laid since her last serious relationship, several years previously. Why wouldn’t Jamie know that? How good do these two really know each other? The movie, to its detriment, never really lands on a digestible answer there.

And that vagueness does damage the overall emotional arc of the picture. Without a solid, coherent base to leap these two purposefully mismatched characters off from, the journey for them and between them stays too murky for its own good. And then everything means less when their relationship changes, because we don’t ever have the firmest of grasps on where they were coming from in the first place.

But still, as a simple entertaining road trip movie with lots of wild swerves and wicked Coen-esque banter, Drive-Away Dolls delivers just fine. Heading from their home in Philadelphia to visit Marian’s aunt in Tallahassee, Florida—and much humor is wrung, as well it should be, from listening to Margaret Qualley say “Tallahassee”—the gals will make several riotous rest-stops along the way. And with an unexpected package burning up their rental-car trunk that’s being hunted by a parade of thugs and nogoodniks (led by Colman Domingo, no less) the big characters keep rolling in, causing a funny ruckus and then exiting stage left.

It seems that danger and sexed-up bus-fulls of college athletes lurk around every corner. And a hilariously aggressive Beanie Feldstein (playing Jamie’s ex) stomps through every now and then to great effect. And all of that is some foul-mouthed screwball perfection. And I should add that I do love that we’re living in a golden age of “be gay, do crime” movies (see also Love Lies Bleeding in just a couple of weeks)—Jamie and Marian stick their precious fingers in the ass-end of the patriarchy, and they fuck that shit up; g’bless. So I’ll say that if Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of brilliance that the brothers Coen manage when they’re working together—and it don’t—it’s still a mighty fun enough ride for what it is. It’ll tide us over anyway.