Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Drive-Away Dolls (2024) dir. Ethan Coen

Love is a sleigh ride to hell.


As endlessly discussed as their films are, it’s easy to forget how little we really know about the inner workings of the creative partnership between Joel and Ethan Coen. They’ve only recorded, to the best of my knowledge, two commentary tracks: one a jokey gabfest with Billy Bob Thornton over The Man Who Wasn’t There, the other an elaborate, Coen-scripted put-on featuring actor Jim Piddock as a supposed film preservationist speaking about the restoration of Blood Simple. Their interviews are so deadpan that one can never quite shake the notion that they’re bullshitting us for their own amusement (there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to unrealized projects described by the Coens, and it’s anyone’s guess how many of those were ever pursued in earnest). Even their credits can be deceiving: for the first couple decades of their career, Joel was the sole credited director and Ethan the sole credited producer, with editing attributed to the mysterious “Roderick Jaynes.” We now know, of course, that all of these duties were shared between the brothers on every film they worked on. The reason for this, the brothers have explained, is that they were nervous that a studio might try to split them up if they didn’t portray their respective roles as more intertwined than they were.

Of course, the Coen brothers have split up, at least for now, and not at the hands of any studio: following 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it was announced that Joel and Ethan would be taking some time apart to pursue independent projects. Joel was first out of the gate in 2021 with his (actual) solo directorial debut, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and now Ethan has followed suit with his own Drive-Away Dolls. Now that we’ve seen what each Coen will come up with when left to his own devices, the division of labor in their collaborations is suddenly a lot less mysterious.

Drive-Away Dolls is, in essence, a classic road-trip romcom, set in the vibrant world of late-’90s lesbian bars. Uptight Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) is planning a trip to Tallahassee to go birding with her aunt when she finds herself with an unexpected passenger: charismatic, sexually voracious alpha-lesbian Jamie (Margaret Qualley), who is desperate to put some distance between herself and her understandably frustrated cop ex (Beanie Feldstein) and decides Tallahassee is as good a destination as any. To save a little cash, Jamie suggests a “drive-away” rather than a proper rental– that is, a rental car slated for delivery to Florida which the pair volunteer to drive at a discounted rate. What they don’t realize is that the trunk of their drive-away contains a standard-issue Mysterious Briefcase, and that certain actors– including a gangster played by Colman Domingo and a family-values senator played by Matt Damon– will stop at nothing to get it back.

Even if one didn’t know going in who directed Drive-Away Dolls, there’s a good chance they might identify it as “Coen Brothers, but with something missing.” In its loopy, anything-goes slapstick, Dolls fits nicely alongside such Coen comedies as Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski— or, more to the point given its layer of political intrigue, Burn After Reading. But just as The Tragedy of Macbeth lacked much of the cockeyed humor which underscored even such forbidding films as Miller’s Crossing or No Country for Old Men, so too is Drive-Away Dolls missing the notes of operatic existentialism which flows through even the silliest Coen Brothers efforts. We see the usual cast of quirky supporting characters (most memorably, a pair of squabbling hitmen played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, and a laconic rental agent played by Bill Camp), but they here feel less like esoteric figures plucked from the Old, Weird America and more like comic types. Likewise, even as our girls find themselves ensnared in a ripped-from-the-1999-headlines political scandal, there is a sense of breeziness rather than fatalism. While I’m sure the actual collaboration is far more complex, based on the available data so far it seems safe to jump to the conclusion that Ethan brought the zany humor to the table, while Joel brought the dark.

Yet while Drive-Away Dolls is among the silliest films to spring from the mind of Ethan Coen, it also may be one of the most personal. Coen co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Trisha Cooke (a film editor who’s had a hand in most of the Coen collaborations, alongside “Roderick Jaynes”) and the pair have been toying with it off and on for the past couple of decades, at one point pitching it for Allison Anders to direct. What’s more, Coen and Cooke have recently revealed their marriage to be of a somewhat unconventional nature: Cooke identifies as a lesbian (and did so prior to their marriage), and both have partners outside the home, but they nevertheless remain committed as a unit, both personally and professionally. The Coens have rarely been forthcoming about their personal lives, but from all appearances we’ve been missing out on some stories.

Taken in this light, Drive-Away Dolls takes on a new, almost touching dimension. It seems safe to say that Cooke is drawing on her own experience for the subject matter (the film’s several lesbian bars feel very much lived-in), and Coen, for the first time in his career, is exploring on screen a major but hitherto unmentioned part of his own life (the Coens’ films, while not exactly sexless, tend to approach sexuality more intellectually than sensually). The marriage between Coen and Cooke is unusual, but their connection is by all accounts deep and genuine, and in Drive-Away Dolls they have finally brought their mutual creative passion to screen.

I realize I’ve been writing for several paragraphs without touching on an important point: Drive-Away Dolls is very, very funny! If it doesn’t quite reach the same level of inspiration as The Big Lebowski (and how many comedies do?), it nevertheless carries itself with a manic, horny comic energy rare in contemporary studio films. Qualley is excellent as always, here playing a sort of distaff version of the loquacious southern protagonists played in previous Coen efforts by George Clooney or Tim Blake Nelson, and Viswanathan’s dour straightwoman (so to speak) brings an unconventional energy to the equation. The conspiracy element, if not exactly trenchant as political satire, is enjoyably loopy and over-the-top (it eventually involves a real-life countercultural icon played uncredited by a contemporary superstar, and I promise you wouldn’t believe me if I revealed either name to you). It’s all so giddy and good-natured and breezy (particularly at a lean 84 minutes) that it’s difficult not to like.

When it comes to filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen– who have made more than a handful of films which qualify for “American classic” status, and only a couple of outright whiffs– it can be difficult not to hold all of their output to a higher standard than average. Which is a shame for a film like Drive-Away Dolls, which, while far from a masterpiece, is as fast, raunchy, and infectious as mainstream comedies come. Those who will love it I suspect will love it intensely, and I can easily see myself revisiting it down the road as a comfort watch. If nothing else, it contains more dildos per minute of screentime than any film you’re likely to watch this year, and that ain’t nothing.

Drive-Away Dolls
dir. Ethan Coen
84 min.

Opens Friday, 2/22, @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, Cinema Salem, and theaters everywhere

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