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Review: 'Drive-Away Dolls'


Sex has returned to the cinema. 

Case in point is Ethan Coen’s latest comedy Drive-Away Dolls.

The movie opens with two young women in bed, passionately writhing and making love.  As things heat up to the boiling point, the phone rings and one of the women answers the call, trying to pretend that she’s not on the edge of an orgasmic explosion. 

It’s funny.  And it’s a moment that defines the remainder of the film—a mix of lesbian romance and sex, and Coen Brothers style, offbeat comedy.

This time around, it’s not the Coen Brothers per se, just one half of the creative partnership that generated its own genre of modern-day comedy, with instant classics such as Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

This time around, it’s just Ethan Coen, working without his brother and frequent collaborator Joel.  Instead, he’s working with his wife of 30 years, Tricia Cooke who was editor and producer on Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou?  They co-wrote Drive-Away Dolls.

To some extent, Drive-Away Dolls follows the signature comedy formula that made their earlier work so funny.  At the heart of it, once again, are inept criminals.  Admittedly, clueless criminals can generate some real laughs.  In this instance, it’s two lowlifes (played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) credited as The Goons.  I suspect that if the budget had been bigger, they most likely would have been portrayed by Steve Buscemi and John Goodman.  Slotnick and Wilson do their best to channel those actors and that kind of chemistry.

The plot of the movie involves The Goons trying to track down two young women who have unknowingly made the mistake of renting a car that contains a mysterious metal briefcase (not unlike the one in Pulp Fiction) and a bag containing a severed head on ice, stashed in the trunk.  No further spoilers here.

The Goons and their boss want what’s in the briefcase, at all costs.  It turns out not to be money or drugs, but something that would only turn up in a Coen Brothers movie.  For the record, the money-in-the-briefcase-routine was already done to comic perfection in The Big Lebowski.

Also, for the record, there are other references to that movie in Drive-Away Dolls, such as the girl on the trampoline shot, some trippy, colorful psychedelic sequences and an instantly recognizable toenail polish color, not to mention the aforementioned inept, nihilist bad guys.

Once again, Drive-Away Dolls is all about two, budding friends on a road trip to Tallahassee with two bungling (but brutal) criminals in hot pursuit.  As with most rom-coms, they initially have little in common, but eventually form a very emotional bond along the way.  It’s a little like Thelma & Louise (1991) with some soft-core porn sex thrown into the mix.

The two women are played by Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan. 

Qualley’s character Jamie is an adventurous gal from Texas who sounds a lot like Miley Cyrus.   Her rapid-fire line delivery is reminiscent of other Coen Brothers creations, in particular, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Amy Archer, in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) who hilariously recaptured Katherine Hepburn’s classic screwball persona that we all loved in movies like Bringing Up Baby (1938).  It’s always a good idea to borrow from the best.

Drive-Away Dolls not only features the twangy Texas sound of Miley Cyrus’s distinctive voice, it features Cyrus herself in a whacky, throw back sex scene reminiscent of an adult film from the “porn chic” era if the 1970s.

Qualley’s co-star, Viswanathan manages to do more with less, stealing scenes with spot-on glances, reactions and facial expressions.  Her character development is something to behold.

But you can’t ignore the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in Drive-Away Dolls—sex.  It’s been a while since a movie has embraced on-screen sex.  Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Hollywood didn’t shy away from the depiction of sex in the movies, but then came the Aids Epidemic and a seismic shift in cultural sensibility and sensitivity, with sex becoming relatively taboo.

For the record, the pendulum, seems to be swinging back with the recent release of movies like Poor Things and Saltburn and the return of nudity and adult content.

Drive-Away Dolls pulls out the stops in terms of sexual content, language and nudity.  It is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

The question here is: who is the intended target audience?  It’s not clearly a movie for everyone.  Instead, it would appear to be either: a movie for die-hard Ethan Coen fans, or the LGBTQ community (though the depiction or treatment of the characters might be deemed offensive by the LGBTQ community) or maybe an audience of moviegoers who have patiently waited for Hollywood to crank up the content and turn up the shock value of feature films.

Drive-Away Dolls is not a movie that lives up to the standards of earlier movies by the Coen Brothers, collectively or individually.  It comes off as a low-budget, attention-getting project meant to make people sit up and take notice.  It succeeds in doing that.

And while the humor is often a bit crude, some of it is admittedly funny, despite being offensive.  Let’s face it, the Coen Brothers always had a bit of a bad boy reputation.

While Drive-Away Dolls may not be at the top of the list of movies made by the Coen Brothers, at the very least it may make you want to re-watch the movies that it references.


Photo Credits: Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features

 ©2023 Focus Features LLC


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