Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive Away Dolls (2024)

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ movie review: Ethan Coen goes solo in raunchy trifle

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A pair of young women inadvertently drive off with some underworld goods on a road trip to Florida in Drive-Away Dolls, opening in Prague cinemas this weekend. Despite an electric performance from Margaret Qualley and some nice flourishes from writer-director Ethan Coen, this one only registers mild amusement… and given the director’s pedigree, a general sense of disappointment.

Drive-Away Dolls opens with a typical film noir setup: a mystery man played by Pedro Pascal (whose billing alone is the kind of droll gag that will define the film’s sense of humor) clutching a mysterious briefcase before being chased down and disposed of by some mysterious baddies.

But this isn’t a case for a hard-boiled detective. Instead, it’s a shaggy dog lesbian setup as the motormouthed Jamie (played by Qualley with a delightful southern twang) gets booted from her residence by scorned lover Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), reaches out to meek friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), and worms her way into a road trip to Florida.

The duo rent a car from Philadelphia to Tallahassee from one of those drive-away places that reimburses couriers to transport vehicles. But wouldn’t you know, deadpan drive-away operator Curlie (a scene-stealing Bill Camp) accidentally gives them the car containing the mysterious briefcase, leading The Chief (Colman Domingo) to send two goons (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) on their trail.

What’s in the briefcase? Unlike a Kiss Me Deadly, which suggested danger with its MacGuffin, or a Pulp Fiction, which obscured the contents with a wink, Drive-Away Dolls employs it for a cheap gag involving a Florida Senator played by Matt Damon. It is, admittedly, an amusing gag, and Damon is fun in what is essentially a single-scene cameo. But it’s not enough to carry the movie, and a short 84-minute runtime starts to feel not short enough.

Despite being the film’s central character, the deferential Marian has almost no agency in this movie, and initial (and much-deserved) conflict with the brash Jamie takes a sour turn. Viswanathan gives a fine performance that gives Drive-Away Dolls the closest thing it has to a heart, but her character’s journey feels more the result of manipulation than growth.

Drive-Away Dolls marks Ethan Coen’s first fictional solo feature after making some of the greatest films of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s with brother Joel up through 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. If Joel Coen‘s debut solo feature, 2021’s The Tragedy of MacBeth, and this one from Ethan are any indication, the brothers benefited from collaboration.

Still, Joel’s solo feature maintained a sense of gravitas sorely missing from Drive-Away Dolls. Ethan’s script, co-written with Tricia Cooke (who co-edited Coen Bros. classics The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), feels flippant and trite, and lacks the elements that would help us care for these characters or their journey.

Ultimately, despite some terrific performances and a strong sense of visual identity, this one comes up short. As an indie film from a debut filmmaker, Drive-Away Dolls might have been a fun new discovery. But coming from even a single Coen brother, this one pales next to just about anything the duo produced together (perhaps only rivaled by The Ladykillers) and is hard to view as anything other than a missed opportunity.

Drive-Away Dolls

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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