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  • Nate Adams

'Drive Away Dolls' review: Road trip comedy needs a tune-up

Courtesy of Focus Features


On paper, a quirky, genre-bending road trip comedy from half the braintrust of the Coen brothers would seem like a slam dunk. Throw in the one-two punch of lead stars Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswannathan (not to mention cameos from Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon) and it’s the perfect recipe for success. Alas, “Drive-Away Dolls” may have the flair and earnest filmmaking prowess of the Coen’s earlier works (“Raising Arizona” immediately comes to mind) but it lacks the confidence of “The Big Lebowski” or “Fargo.”

Director Ethan Coen, working with a script he co-wrote alongside wife Tricia Cooke, throws many bizarre ideas onto the screen in “Drive-Away Dolls,” chief among them Qualley brandishing a thick southern accent. Now, to her credit, Qualley is arguably the film’s greatest asset playing Jamie, a free-spirited, sexually deviant lesbian who, alongside her friend Marian (Viswanathan), comes across a suspicious briefcase in their drive-away vehicle that has, let’s say, major political implications. 

Marian and Jamie are headed to Tallahassee and the film is set in 1999 on the brink of Y2K, so while there’s no smartphones, there are quips about Chelsea Clinton and they have to navigate using a map (gasp!). Qualley and Viswantahan are solid playing the obvious “Odd Couple” type, the latter embodying her character's sexual libido with a Tasmanian Devil energy, and the former reserved and quiet and in desperate need of good sex. The two are being chased by cartoonish goons (played by Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, and C.J. Wilson) who are on the hunt for what lies inside the mysterious briefcase. 

Like the rest of the movie, the duo’s journey is a rather strange and confusing odyssey. Once we find out what exactly is in the briefcase (which I won’t reveal here, but if you look closely at the poster, you could decipher it) “Drive-Away Dolls” starts to stretch the boundaries of what audiences are inclined to believe. You can sense Coen is trying to replicate the success of his earlier works, but instead he just makes you nostalgic for those films instead: Like the bumbling henchman, the wide angle shots, or speedy on-screen transitions. (And the attempt at subverting expectations with the inclusion of a major pop star is a real headscratcher). 

Supporting turns from Bill Camp, and Beanie Feldstein, playing a police officer who is also Jamie’s ex-lover, land some of the biggest laughs in the film. Feldstein, in particular, seems like the MVP playing someone who isn’t afraid to put people into their place; while Camp, playing a lowly clerk named Curlie, makes for a welcome screen presence. It’s a bummer, then, “Drive-Away Dolls” never locks down a concise tone to complement an arsenal of decent performances, nor does it have enough substance to sustain itself beyond a few running gags. It’s not completely forgettable and in this deserted theatrical landscape, it certainly stands out, but this is one ride that could use some finesse under the hood. 

Grade: C+ 

DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS is now playing in theaters. 


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