3 out of 5 stars

After the Coen brothers took a hiatus from working together following a long career filled with dark comedies, genre-bending dramas, and a slew of cult classics, Joel Coen directed the visually stunning, Academy Award-nominated The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand (also Joel’s three-time Oscar-winning wife.) Ethan Coen, meanwhile, worked with his wife and editor, Tricia Cooke, on the archival documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind (2022). Now, the couple reunite for Ethan’s solo directorial debut, Drive-Away Dolls; a zany, sexy comedy that, unlike Joel’s Macbeth, is undeniably linked to the rich catalogue of Coen collaborations but lacks the punch to stand entirely on its own.

Set just before the turn of the 21st-century, Drive-Away Dolls opens with criminal intrigue before shifting its focus to the two women at the film’s heart. When Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is caught cheating on her long-term cop girlfriend, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), she decides to join her apprehensive friend, Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee. Unaware that some precious cargo is hidden in the boot of their rental car, they find themselves on the run from three criminals (Colman Domingo, C.J Wilson, Joey Slotnick).

Drive-Away Dolls is a buddy road trip film, a love story, a crime caper, and a hilarious comedy all rolled into one package. The screenplay by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke is unconcerned, in a unique way, with taking itself too seriously. Even from the first scene, where a nervous collector (Pedro Pascal) is murdered in a humorously eccentric and farcical way by two criminals, the film announces its intention to be light-hearted. This freedom allows the film to revel in the performances of its actors.

Margaret Qualley is effortlessly charming and funny as Jamie, a free-spirited young woman whose hubris lies in her self-absorption. She doesn’t realise when her sexual conquests are harming those around her. Geraldine Viswanathan’s Marian is the polar opposite: calculating, judgemental, and uptight. Repressed following a break-up with her former girlfriend, Marian is also looking for connection on the road, just like Jamie. The script provides ample space for them to clash and connect, to explore their hearts and sexual desires fully. As the heart of the film, this pair is full of chemistry and makes up for some of the film’s shortcomings in script and direction.

Much of the supporting cast gives it their all. Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) is passionate and strong, and her retribution on screen is highly enjoyable; Pedro Pascal’s brief role at the beginning is hilarious; Matt Damon (Oppenheimer), as a Florida State Senator, does what he does best by turning up randomly in the second half of the movie to steal scenes; and Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit) has a standout small role as Curlie, the owner of the rental car company who mistakenly gives the wrong car to Jamie and Marian, only to be embroiled in the shady dealings of The Chief (Domingo) and his goons. Colman Domingo himself, unfortunately, feels underserved by the script. His character, as the leader of the criminal trio, isn’t fleshed out or unique in any meaningful way.

Beyond the memorable characters, Drive-Away Dolls benefits from its intriguing direction. Ethan Coen finds some humorous places to film the action, such as when a tyre blows out on the rental car, causing a major panic among the travelling women. Early in the film, the editing by Tricia Cooke is vibrant, using dynamic scene transitions to heighten the wackiness. However, beyond the opening third of the movie, the editing and direction lose their impact.

There’s one important scene involving a rotating make-out circle with Jamie, Marian, and an entire girls’ football team that cuts away to The Chief interrogating Jamie’s ex before the film cuts straight back to the same moment, where no time has passed. It’s difficult to see the narrative justification for cutting away from the scene only to return immediately, and it’s jarring moments like that which detract from the enjoyment of the film’s more clever moments.

By the film’s end, Drive-Away Dolls leans further into its zany antics, ultimately delivering a poignant yet underwhelming ending. At a brisk 84-minutes, the film delivers a quick plunge into criminal incompetence and sexual exploration but doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Perhaps it tries too hard to avoid resembling its inspirations, failing to find its footing and take flight.

The film carries echoes of classic Coen brothers films. The bickering partners who are worse than inept at their jobs scream of Fargo (1996). A couple of innocent civilians stumbling upon a larger criminal operation recalls Josh Brolin’s predicament in No Country for Old Men (2007). The psychedelic interludes with flying inanimate objects borrow heavily from The Big Lebowski (1998), though Drive-Away Dolls boasts a surprising celebrity cameo that’s too much fun to give away. The film is brimming with references to the Coen brothers’ filmography, yet it never quite reaches the heights of its predecessors.

While it functions as a slapstick comedy with some undeniably interesting performances, it’s hard to imagine Drive-Away Dolls achieving the same rewatch value or enduring legacy as the films bearing the Coen brothers’ name.

USA UK | 2024 | 84 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

director: Ethan Coen.
writer: Ethan Coen & Tricia Cooke.
starring: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp & Matt Damon.