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Drive-Away Dolls Review: Ethan Coen's Lesbian Romp Is High On Silliness, Low On Laughs

  • Works okay when it's in romantic mode
  • Good cinematography and acting
  • Lacks strong narrative motivation
  • For a film so silly and insubstantial, it's just not funny

Is every sibling director team breaking up? The Wachowski sisters haven't worked together since the first season of "Sense8," with Lily and Lana's subsequent solo projects going in very different directions. The Safdie brothers are no longer a team post-"Uncut Gems," with Benny co-creating, writing, and starring in Showtime's "The Curse" without the involvement of his brother, Josh. Then there's perhaps the most famous filmmaking family pair, the Coen brothers, who haven't made a movie together since 2018's "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." While they might reunite for a horror movie in the future, for now, they're pursuing separate careers.

Joel and Ethan Coen's first solo-directed narrative features couldn't be more different: Where Joel's first movie without his brother was the dark expressionist Shakespeare adaptation "The Tragedy of Macbeth," Ethan's solo fiction debut (following his documentary "Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind") is the lesbian road trip crime comedy "Drive-Away Dolls." Based on the subject matter of both films, one might assume that Joel was the serious "No Country for Old Men" Coen brother and Ethan was the fun "Raising Arizona" one. After watching both films, one might come away with the less charitable perspective that Joel is the Coen brother with more talent and Ethan is lost without him.

As someone who's always up for seeing more LGBTQ+ protagonists in popcorn films, it brings me no pleasure to report that "Drive-Away Dolls" does not work for me. A talented cast and some beautiful cinematography by Ari Wegner keep the film within the realm of watchability, but when a comedy is this dedicated to its own insubstantiality, it had better make me laugh a lot, and I hardly laughed at all during "Drive-Away Dolls." If you want a stupid, violent, semi-retro lesbian sex comedy that's actually funny, just watch (or rewatch) "Bottoms" instead.

We're on the road to nowhere

Like many of the Coen brothers' films, "Drive-Away Dolls" plays around with genre conventions. The film's odd-couple protagonists — perpetually horny Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and socially awkward Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) — behave as if they're in a low-stakes sex comedy, not knowing that they're actually caught up in a violent crime thriller ... which ultimately turns out to be a slightly higher-stakes sex comedy. It's a fun idea, but one that amounts to surprisingly little.

Jamie and Marian's motivations for traveling from Pennsylvania to Tallahassee, Florida are pretty thin. Jamie wants to get away after a break-up with angry cop Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), Marian suggests the location because she has family there, and Jamie wants to help Marian get laid along the way (note that the film takes place in 1999, so they're not breaking the Human Rights Campaign's current travel advisory against queer people going to Florida). It's not until well over halfway through the movie that they finally realize there's a severed head and a suitcase filled with valuables in the trunk of the car they rented. The trailers have shown off a lot of scenes from the final act of the film because frankly, it's hard to say that much of anything actually happens for the first two-thirds (the spoiler-y trailers also served as a warning that Pedro Pascal's screen time would be ... extremely limited).

So what is there for most of the movie? Well, there's a lot of fast-paced banter, both between Jamie and Marian and between the two goons (C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick) chasing the girls on behalf of "The Chief" (Colman Domingo). The actors work with what they have, but the dialogue just isn't particularly funny. There are many extremely goofy-looking scene transitions; the film's co-writer Tricia Cooke works primarily as an editor, and I can tell she had fun editing this film, but when I'm not laughing with the movie, it comes across as trying too hard. Every now and then, there are bizarre CGI-heavy psychedelic montages featuring Matt Damon and Miley Cyrus that eventually come to have some degree of plot relevance but are bound to confuse or annoy people in the moment.

The final act is the strongest (relatively speaking)

There are a few chuckles to be had when the crime story reaches its incredibly stupid conclusion, but the greatest strength of the final act of "Drive-Away Dolls" is actually in the relationship between the main characters. I can't say I cared much about Jamie or Marian individually for much of the film, finding them both a bit one-note, but the way their connection evolves ends up being pretty sweet. In as much as you can say this intentionally pointless movie is "about" anything meaningful, it's most interesting when exploring the fine line between friendship and romance that can occur within queer social groups.

The final line of "Drive-Away Dolls" is a microcosm of what the film is trying to do and where it comes up short. It's a cute homage to the end of "Some Like It Hot," but it's also a line that just doesn't make sense in the year 1999. My best guess as to how this happened: this script was set in the present day when it was first written in the 2000s, and then when the milieu was no longer contemporary, the writers changed the setting to 1999 to add in Y2K and election references but couldn't figure out a different ending, so they're hoping viewers just choose to forget history to make it work.

I admit my taste in Coen brothers comedies doesn't always match up with the consensus. ("The Hudsucker Proxy"? Underrated. "The Big Lebowski"? Overrated.) So you can take my assessment of "Drive-Away Dolls" with whatever grain of salt you feel necessary. Comedy is extremely subjective, after all, and maybe this film will find an audience that enjoys it more than I did.

One last note: "Drive-Away Dolls" is not the title that appears in the movie's credits. The actual title has big two differences from the one that appears in marketing: one you can find easily if you look up what the script was originally pitched as, while the other is one of the film's more clever jokes.

"Drive-Away Dolls" opens in theaters on February 23.