Drive-Away Dolls

Normally, the personal lives of filmmakers aren’t a topic suited for inclusion in a review, but the case of Drive-Away Dolls is different. This road trip comedy was directed by Ethan Coen who, with brother Joel, made Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and lots of other amazing works. He wrote the screenplay with his wife and former editor, Tricia Cooke. The thing is, Cooke is a lesbian and, according to a recent interview with Moviemaker, both have other partners despite their 20-year union.

I bring this up solely because it helps to explain what a unique concoction their movie is. Drive-Away Dolls is a combination of early-era Coen kookiness and New Queer Cinema-inspired satire. The duo employs intentionally cheesy wipes to transition between scenes and they fill the story with oddball characters, yet still keep a touching, observant same-sex romance at the center. We’re used to major release movies portraying lesbians in outdated, stereotypical ways. Getting one that portrays them with honesty, dimension, and observant humor is much rarer. It’s also a welcome development.

The threadbare story relies on the old convention of Innocent People who end up in possession of the Wrong Thing. The people are gay friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). The former is unapologetically horny, the latter reserved. When Jamie’s girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) ends their relationship, she and Marian sign up to drive a car from Philadelphia to Tallahassee. That car was supposed to be picked up by “the Chief” (Colman Domingo), a fixer who works for a very powerful conservative senator (Matt Damon). An extremely sensitive package is in the car’s trunk. The Chief sends two goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), to find the women and obtain the items.

None of that really matters. Drive-Away Dolls is more about putting a bunch of colorful characters in each other’s orbits, then watching what happens. Jamie tries to help Marian liberate herself on the trip. Pickup bars and random encounters are not what Marian seeks, though. The film additionally draws contrasts between them and the goons, who similarly have comically differing personalities. Some political satire is thrown in for good measure, with jabs at anti-gay legislation and homophobia. Finally, there are wild situations occurring regularly, especially once the contents of the suitcases in the trunk are revealed. From minute to minute, the film is enjoyably unpredictable.

Great casting is the key. Qualley speaks in a twangy accent and wittily emphasizes Jamie’s openness about her love of sex. Even better, she does that while still giving the character sincerity. Viswanathan avoids the cliches of a bottled-up person, suggesting Marian wants to break free, but can’t quite figure out how to get there. Together, the actresses create a dynamic that proves surprisingly sweet. The outrageous comedy is grounded by the fact that these two friends clearly, palpably care for one another.

Drive-Away Dolls is undeniably slight in the plot department, although that choice is purposeful. Coen and Cooke have created a light-hearted lesbian romp that plays like Thelma & Louise by way of Raising Arizona. And I haven’t even mentioned the psychedelic interludes that pepper the story. The picture is on its own weird wavelength. I kind of love it for that.

out of four

Drive-Away Dolls is rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language, and some violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan