Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Drive-Away Dolls' - Ethan Coen tries lesbian screwball

Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Drive-Away Dolls' - Ethan Coen tries lesbian screwball

Filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen have spent four decades showing how oddball comedies and darkly existential dramas need not exist in segregation.

From 1984’s Blood Simple to 2018’s Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, via the highs of Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men, their capacity to mood-merge has been unparalleled.

From time to time, each sibling goes their own way, pursuing separate projects behind the camera and leaning into different sensibilities and creative interests. Joel Coen gave us his intense and stark The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021, while Ethan Coen went down the documentary road a year later with his Jerry Lee Lewis documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.

Still working apart (although the rumour is that the pair have begun planning out their next project together), it’s time for Ethan to treat us to his first solo fiction feature.

And this time, the mood is resolutely absurd.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in 'Drive-Away Dolls'
Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in 'Drive-Away Dolls' - Focus Features

Philadelphia, 1999.

A jittery customer (Pedro Pascal) walks into a bar, carrying a briefcase.

When the meet-up he was expecting doesn’t materialise, he ends up in a dark alleyway, forcibly relieved of his MacGuffin and his oxygen habit.

Enter a well-tailored gangster (the ever-suave Colman Domingo) and two dodgy thugs (C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick), who are tasked to deliver the case to a client in Tallahassee.

The snag is that two young women were rented the vehicle containing the mysterious prize, having been mistaken for the ones making the drop.

One is Jamie (Margaret Qualley), a monogamy-averse loudmouth who has just been kicked to the curb by her cop girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, who steals the show). She needs some time off to better map out LGBTQ hotspots. And do body shots. The other half of this mismatched duo is Jamie’s bookish friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who her far less socially awkward bestie is determined to get laid.

Of course, little do they realise that the car they’re driving on their road trip contains the suspicious case – the contents of which won’t be spoiled here.

Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley and MVP Beanie Feldstein
Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley and MVP Beanie Feldstein - Focus Features

Mistaken identities. Eccentric criminals. Outrageous accents. Sudden bursts of violence.

It’s what you’d expect from a Coen.

Based on an early 2000s screenplay that Ethan Coen wrote with his partner Tricia Cooke, who drew from her experiences as a member of the queer community, Drive-Away Dolls does look very good on paper. Who doesn’t like the thought of a very horny No Country For Old Men by way of a kitschy Fargo?

And there is a lot to like. Its cartoonish absurdity sustains the lean 84-minute runtime; the sex talk is direct; the violence is gloriously slapstick; the 70s-inspired trippy interludes featuring laughing skulls and Miley Cyrus are a delight; Matt Damon cameoing as a conservative congressman with a secret is always appreciated; and there are so many dick jokes, it’s hard to keep track.

Add a welcome Kiss Me Deadly nod and a smattering of Henry James references, whose prose is described at one point as “like someone dragging day-old spaghetti across my tits”, and you should have a riot on your hands.

Still, with all those winning components, something feels off.

Drive-Away Dolls strives to be hysterically zany, and only hits its targets half the time. It also works very hard to flaunt its sapphic credentials, and comes off as a bit desperate at times – especially compared to the far funnier and more smoothly out-and-proud Bottoms, one of our favourite films from last year.

There’s also the sizeable issue that the odd-couple chemistry between Qualley and Viswanathan falls flat – much like the former’s “Honey darlin’” Texan lilt and verbose speech debit, which become increasingly grating as the film progresses.

It does zip by, and there’s definitely something to admire about making a loose-limbed lesbian screwball crime comedy that is only concerned with the audience having a good time. And for that, Drive-Away Dolls deserves plaudits.

But after the go-for-broke shenanigans and sporadic laughs have faded, you’re left with the niggling sensation that this horny caper could have been something far more special and provocative had it not spent a lot of its runtime falling on the wrong side of kooky.

Drive-Away Dolls is out in cinemas now.