.Drive-Away Dolls Film Review

Drive-Away Dolls needs some roadside assistance

A few questions pop up about Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls.

The film has writing problems. It’s cobbled together by veteran producer-director-writer Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, etc.) and his wife and frequent collaborator Tricia Cooke. The movie is a slender comic adventure about a pair of mismatched lesbian buddies—portrayed by Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan—taking a road trip to Tallahassee in a one-way rental car, without doing much research beforehand. 

As luck would have it, the dim bulb manager of the auto rental office mistakenly sends Jamie (Qualley) and Marian (Viswanathan) on their way in a Dodge Aries that has already been “reserved” by a bunch of crooks who have previously hidden some sort of swag in the car’s trunk. Stuff the crooks would kill to retrieve. The oblivious Jamie and Marian don’t discover the secret stash until it’s too late.

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And so we have the spectacle of the two unsuspecting “dolls,” lazily drifting southward and dropping in on women’s bars and slumber parties en route, while being pursued by an equally disorganized couple of hit men, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson). 

Not exactly the freshest comedic premise in the world, but something that could conceivably be rescued by witty dialogue, strong gags or irresistible performances—i.e., the things that Drive-Away Dolls does not have. 

Qualley’s Jamie is the free spirit of the piece, a loosey-goosey party girl eager to hustle female sports team athletes and excited to be going to Tallahassee for fun (Tallahassee?). Her cornpone accent might have been borrowed from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—on her it doesn’t quite compute. Qualley’s roles in Seberg, Poor Things and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood didn’t demonstrate much comic flair, but that doesn’t inhibit director Coen and the actor from pushing Jamie’s hyper-energetic burlesque-sapphic button early and often. The character quickly becomes irritating.

As for Viswanathan’s wallflower-at-the-orgy Marian, the role never quite achieves the humorous relief we imagine it was trying for. That’s unfortunate. A slut and a nerd ping-ponging their way down Southern highways might have been a workable vehicle for farce, however uninspired, but neither Qualley nor Viswanathan are particularly funny. Poor casting? Faulty screenplay? Take your pick.

Drive-Away Dolls attempts to make up for these uninspired central characters by piling on the frantic visual distractions—sight gags, trippy psychedelic inserts, a horny Chihuahua, a deadpan juke joint customer, grisly props, etc. Too many fillers. Together, they waste enough time to push the film’s running time to the 84-minute mark, but do nothing to lift the general mood of torpor. 

The clipped dialogue readings that sounded so archly appropriate in Inside Llewyn Davis or Barton Fink instead here suggest that this half of the much-heralded Coen Brothers team is suddenly out of ideas. Tedium sets in. 

As in a few previous Coen films, a smattering of guest cameos helps take some of the load off the main event. In this case they’re fighting a losing battle, but it’s still arguably fun to see Colman Domingo—in the wake of his robust portrayals in Rustin and The Color Purple—joining the helter-skelter crime high jinks built around dildos and a severed head in a box. 

Meanwhile, character acting stalwart Bill Camp mugs vigorously as Curlie, the auto rental guy whose gaffe sets the plot rolling. Also caught up in the chase are actors Beanie Feldstein (as a girlfriend) and the ubiquitous Matt Damon, appearing here as a guilty-faced U.S. Senator named Gary Channel, trying to cover up his naughty past. 

Latest bulletins concerning the Coen Brothers’ recent professional “split” indicate that filmmakers Ethan and Joel—after taking some time off from their 40-year collaboration—are planning to reunite for an unnamed horror movie project. 

After sitting through Drive-Away Dolls (previous working title: Honey Don’t), Coen fans can only hope for the best. Until then, drive away quickly from this ungainly place-holder. 

Now playing at AMC, CineLux, Cinemark, Pruneyard, ShowPlace ICON and West Wind theaters.


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