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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Drive-Away Dolls': A Breezy, Messy Road Trip Comedy

A raucous, raunchy road trip comedy about two lesbian friends isn't exactly what one might expect Ethan Coen would tackle in his first directorial effort without his brother, Joel. But that is exactly what we get with Drive-Away Dolls, which was written by him and his wife, Tricia Cooke. It feels like a true passion project for the two, as you can feel the heart and effort they put into this film all throughout. However, it becomes clear early on that the film wants to be two very different things. On one hand, it wants to maintain the distinct sensibilities of a Coen Brothers film, with a grounded sense of humor and an eclectic cast of characters. On the other, it wants to be a campy, breezy, and unapologetically queer comedy that feels more in line with mainstream comedies of the 90s. It tries desperately to be both, but it ends up with a wildly uneven tone that drags the film down quite a bit. Coen and Cooke definitely deliver some good stuff here, but the film as a whole is a bit of a mess, and poses questions about who should really be telling this story in the first place.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are two friends in need of an escape. When Marian plans a trip down to Tallahassee, Florida, Jamie decides to tag-along. The two decide to use a drive-away car service, in which a person drives a car one-way to another person. Due to a misunderstanding, Jamie and Marian find themselves with a car meant for someone else, and soon have a trio of criminals on their tail. This leads them on a wild trip involving mysterious cargo, casual hook-ups, and a potential political scandal.

The most glaring issue with this film is that its tone is all over the place. In the film's early moments, it incorporates strange editing choices, namely goofy transitions accompanied by cartoonish sound effects. This, along with the film's raunchier jokes, recall screwball comedies of the 90s and 2000s. If the film leaned more into this, I would have probably been more on board with it. But considering that there are several scenes which feel more in line with the Coen Brothers' oeuvre, it feels more like a clashing of two distinct styles as opposed to a fusion of them. It's unfortunate because both styles work well in isolation, but are more of a mishmash when put together. It shifts between them in a way that is jarring and comes across as distracting more than anything.

Part of the problem lies in Ethan Coen directing this, as I don't think he's the best person for the job for this particular film. Don't get me wrong, I love Coen and his work, but I feel like he doesn't have that firm of a hand on the material, despite co-writing the script. Part of me wonders if Tricia Cooke should have directed this film, as more of it feels inspired by her and her own experiences in discovering her sexuality as a queer woman. Granted, Cooke has never directed before, so who knows if this would have been helpful or not. But considering that this film centers on two lesbian characters, it might have helped to have Cooke or someone else who identifies as LGBTQ+ in the director's chair. Coen is able to handle the story and its queer aspects of it fairly well, but it certainly isn't his strongest work.

Despite my issues with the film's direction, the script isn't half-bad. If nothing else, I appreciate that it throws a lot at the wall, and that a fair amount of it sticks. The film itself is a breezy 84 minutes, but it crams quite a lot in over its runtime. The crime elements are especially strong, as is the dynamic between the two leads. I will say that some of the turns that the film takes don't fully work, but it ultimately arrives at a satisfying ending. But beyond that, I like that the film has some surprises up its sleeve, which kept me invested for much of it. And I must admit that there are some solid laughs here, mainly due to the film's dialogue, which is the script's best asset. Coen and Cooke have some great ideas within the script, and while they are amusing, some of them feel half-formed and one-dimensional. Of course, this isn't a particularly deep film, but it is still surprising that some of its jokes and observations feel a bit weak.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan pick up a lot of the slack, as they are a great duo and are compelling to watch. Qualley really goes for it with her portrayal of Jamie, a free-spirited young woman. She is so comfortable in her own skin, and has an impulsive nature that plays against Viswanathan's more straight-laced Marian so well. Qualley's accent work is fascinating in this film, as she adopts a Southern accent that is jarring at first, but settles nicely after a couple of scenes. It sounds like a cross between Miley Cyrus and Qualley's mother, Andie MacDowell, and it gives her character an interesting edge that I was not expecting. Viswanathan is such a great foil for her, as she is much more controlled and Type-A by comparison. She has the less showy role between the two, but she does such a great job of getting you to feel for her in certain moments, and lands a few good jokes as well. The chemistry between them is what really lifts the film up, and their dynamic is perhaps the best thing about the film as a whole.

In typical Coen fashion, the film is populated by a supporting cast of unique characters. Quite a few of them only show up for one scene, but make an interesting mark on the film based on their sheer presence alone. Everyone does pretty good work throughout the film, especially Beanie Feldstein, Bill Camp, and Colman Domingo. Feldstein especially is fun to watch, as she plays against type a little as an angry cop. She is a bit of a scene-stealer here, but she also feels so natural with the tapestry of the film itself. Camp and Domingo play characters that are within their respective wheelhouses, and hold down the more grounded portions of the film quite well. Two of the biggest standouts, however, are Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson as the pair of goons that are tracking down Jamie and Marian. They have a hilarious rapport with one another, and Slotnick in particular is funny in every scene he's in. Everyone in this film does pretty solid work, and helps keep the film afloat quite nicely.

While it has some funny moments, Drive-Away Dolls doesn't fully live up to its potential, and is a bit of a mess. If it put more energy into blending the screwball half of the film with the Coen-esque half of it, or into finding a consistency within either style, it could have worked better. But it ends up being a bit too uneven for its own good, and takes a lot away from the film as a whole. Coen and Cooke aren't bad writing partners, but I definitely think that there's a lot they can improve on if they collaborate again in the future. It's a bit of a let-down for me as someone who likes Coen as a filmmaker, but I can't deny that it has some good bits, and it at least makes an effort to be fresh and original, even if it isn't fully successful on that front.

Rating: 3/5

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