Drive-Away Dolls – movie review

You know how siblings can be. When one gets to do something, the other just has to do it too. So when Joel Coen stepped out of the Coen Brothers cocoon in 2021 to direct the brooding, highly stylised The Tragedy of Macbeth, it was only a matter of time before younger brother Ethan Coen also lit out on his own. His first (or is it?) solo feature film as a director is Drive-Away Dolls. And it couldn’t be more different from Joel’s film.

Where Joel went into the rarefied air of classic theatre, Ethan has gone in, well, a different direction. Drive-Away Dolls is a psychedelic crime caper, lesbian rom-com and road movie, with a sprinkling of late-19th Century writer Henry James. Try imagining the Coen Brothers’ classic Raising Arizona mashed-up with Bottoms and The Portrait of a Lady, and you might have some idea where this is going. Ethan co-wrote the script with Tricia Cooke, the Coens’ longtime editor and Ethan’s spouse. The screenplay lays out a series of plotlines. It takes a little bit of effort to keep track of them all, but they mostly come together in the end.

The basic premise sees friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) heading from New York City to Tallahassee in Florida. The quiet and conservative Marian is leaving a dead-end job to visit her aunt and do a spot of bird-watching. Confident and talkative Jamie has just broken up with – and been kicked out by – longtime girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) so cajoles Marian into taking her along for the ride. The women get a drive-away (a one-way rental) car and set out on the open road to sunny Florida. It’s 1999 and Google Maps and social media aren’t a thing yet, so they’re navigating old-school from a paper map.

Little do they know however that they have the wrong car. Rental manager Curlie (Bill Camp) was supposed to give the car, and its unconventional concealed cargo, to two “goons” – Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C. J. Wilson) – to take to Tallahassee. Now their gang boss The Chief (Colman Domingo) sends them on a cross country expedition to find the car and retrieve the merchandise – which of course puts Jamie and Marian in dire peril.

The script alludes to North by Northwest (except it’s the wrong car instead of the wrong man), and the crime-comedy aspects of it work best. I’m not sure the film entirely nails the gay rom-com storyline (seems to be a heavy dose of male gaze here); but the upbeat ending papers over a lot of cracks.  And in case you miss the Henry James references, two of the characters are reading James’ The Europeans. In contrast to Joel’s darkly serious take on Macbeth, Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Ethan keeps the action tripping along at breakneck speed. And it’s consistently hilarious, particularly in the final third when the characters finally reach Tallahassee.

Coen Brothers’ movies are notable for their fine performances, and Ethan certainly gets the most from his large cast here. Margaret Qualley (My Salinger Year) and Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan (Cat Person) shine as the mismatched road buddies. C. J. Wilson (The Trial of the Chicago 7) and particularly Joey Slotnick (The Goldfinch) are hugely entertaining as the inept goons. Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) has a smaller but pivotal role as Sukie. Colman Domingo (The Color Purple) and Pedro Pascal (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent) are mostly sidelined in small roles; but Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit) has some excellent moments as the unfortunate Curlie. And Matt Damon (both aged and de-aged) pops up as a US Senator.

Drive-Away Dolls is – appropriately – a wild ride. But this quirky mish-mash of styles and themes mostly works thanks to its breezy attitude and very funny script.

David Edwards

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