Review: ‘Drive-Away Dolls’

Margaret Qualley And Geraldine Viswanathan Take A Long Strange Trip In Ethan Coen's First Solo Effort

I can’t wait for someone to make a queer version of Ethan Coen’s Drive Away Dolls. You’re probably thinking, “Cortland, that film is about to come out and has two lesbian women as its protagonists.” You’re not wrong. However, the first solo film from Ethan Coen, one-half of the revered Coen Brothers,  doesn’t cash in on the potential of its premise in a way a queer director would. 

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan play two lesbian friends, one recovering from a break-up, the other sexually repressed, who need some time away from Philadelphia and must figure out how to get to Tallahassee. Instead of renting a car, Jamie (Margaret Qualley) suggests they do a drive away, a service that pairs travelers with vehicles that both are heading in the same direction. 

Of course, their timing is terrible and the man behind the counter (an underused but great Bill Camp) pairs them with a car meant for someone else. Buried under the spare tire is a mysterious case. As they travel most of the way to Florida without knowing henchmen (led by Colman Domingo) are on their tail, the two friends stop, drink, and reflect on their relationship.

The premise is rife with jokes: gay jokes, crime jokes, Matt Damon penis jokes, and except for a few scattered laughs, Drive Away Dolls doesn’t deliver. Part of this problem derives from my previous point that Ethan Coen is not a lesbian and doesn’t know where, when, and how to find comedic moments from his leading ladies. The majority of the jokes that are made feel stale and inauthentic. 

It’s as if Coen is trying to recreate a Coen Brothers film but instead pulls off the fresh out-of-film school version. Margaret Qualley is playing a Frances McDormand type, complete with a blunt bob haircut. Henchmen debate their relationship in the car, resorting to violence that fails to be comedic. The box’s contents is more of a McGuffin than anything else. Coen, who co-wrote the script with his wife and editor Tricia Cooke, inserts Coen brother-esque characters and tropes into the script without much care or precision. Instead of trying something different, like his brother Joel did in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Ethan rests on his laurels.

As leads, Viswanathan and Qualley play more archetypes than characters which makes them more tedious than endearing to wash. The former, who is normally hilariously charming, is annoyingly morose and overwhelming one note. Qualley tries to play the playboy character we’re used to seeing in a road movie but it’s not endearing. Her Texas accent has a similar effect to Juno Temple’s Fargo accent, which sounds off-putting when you initially hear it. Unlike Temple, you never get used to Qualley’s drawl. 

The supporting cast is absolutely having a great time here. Pedro Pascal has a blast in a small but grisly cameo, while Colman Domingo feels like the weathered, tough but fair, worthy opponent we are used to seeing in Coen Brother’s films. Beanie Feldstein plays the part of the scorn lesbian perfectly, though her character’s presence doesn’t feel necessary. 

When the film ends, the end titles eventually change from Drive Away Dolls to Drive Away Dykes and though feelings around the slur have changed, I’m not quite sure the previous 84 minutes have earned Ethan Coen the right to use it.

Drive-Away Dolls is in theaters this Friday. Watch the trailer below.

'Drive-Away Dolls'
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
review-drive-away-dollsEthan Coen strikes out on his own in 'Drive-Away Dolls', his queer attempt at a Coen Brothers movie with none of the charm or bite.