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Drive Away Dolls

Coming out of “Drive-Away Dolls,” an uproarious, sexy and deliciously feminine B-movie, the immediate thing you might realize is just how dearly this particular Coen Brothers flavor has been missed. You know, that quirky, familiarly zany essence last seen in “Burn After Reading” (or perhaps “Hail, Caesar!”), living on its own zippy and colorful terms, unbothered with the rules and properness of anywhere else.

But it’s only one brother this time, to be clear — Ethan Coen in the director’s chair sans Joel, teaming up with screenwriter (and spouse) Tricia Cooke on the page. Free-spirited and willing to take bold chances, the duo craft a genuinely entertaining road movie that splits the difference between the crime artery of “Fargo” (though don’t expect anything dark or snowy in the sunny “Dolls”) and the goofy crookery of “Burn After Reading.” The result is two lesbian friends on a road trip to Tallahassee (the location itself is a cheeky running joke), driving through an original picture that winks at both the old-fashioned screwballs of yore and a ‘90s brand of indie grit, with plenty of knowingly ridiculous twists and, well, dildos of all shapes and sizes to spare.

Speaking of dildos, there is even a wall-mounted one in this joint. (Maybe it’s a real thing, maybe it’s not, but it’s very funny.) Inheriting the hilariously peculiar sex toy is the furious, gun-toting no-nonsense cop Sukie (an always great but never better Beanie Feldstein), after a painful breakup from her girlfriend. Her enraging ex? It’s the terrific Margaret Qualley’s feisty Jamie, a sexually very active adventurer who’d try anything once, fidelity be damned. And what’s a break-up for Jamie if not an opportunity to hop on a journey with her uptight and principled lesbian bestie Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, with her quietly mesmerizing star power), who just wants to get to Florida for a spot of birdwatching. They would get there alright, but not before stopping at famous lesbian bars, BBQ spots and motels across an itinerary that Jamie has plotted, with the hopes of helping the brainy Marian loosen up a little, maybe even have some casual sex on the side.

The backdrop is 1999 with its Y2K frenzy and an impending conservatism in the air, a time-period that effectively (and thankfully) eliminates excessive cell phones and all of social media as obstructions to a successful crime caper. The women’s plan is simple—check out a drive-away car that is ought to be on its way to Tallahassee. They score one at Curlie’s (Bill Camp) shady little establishment that sets up such deals. Except, it ends up being the wrong car, loaded with a mystery suitcase once stolen by an enigmatic collector (Pedro Pascal) and supposed to be driven by a pair of small-time felons—the smooth-talking chatterer Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and the perennially agitated Flint (C. J. Wilson)—to its eventual owner. (Wait until you see its contents—unlike “Pulp Fiction,” this one will show you what’s inside.)

The film breezily toggles between Marian and Jamie’s borrowed Dodge Aries and the felons’ car tailing them, giving us not one, but two pairs of mismatched and bickering road buddies for the price of one. While Slotnick and Wilson — who were previously in Ethan Coen’s collection of stage plays, A Play Is a Poem — are intriguing enough, the main attraction is of course the dynamic bonding between Jamie and Marian. With her exaggerated Southern accent and at-ease body language both alluringly catty and muscular, Qualley is simply a firecracker, an explosive and voracious sprit bursting with the kind of energy that once again cements her as a once-in-a-generation talent. Balancing Qualley’s uncontainable energy is Viswanathan’s gradually swelling verve until her Marian is finally splayed open, an arc that Viswanathan beautifully charts as one of the most striking leading actors working today (and who should be trusted with a lot more leading roles pronto). Elsewhere, Feldstein is the film’s secret weapon as the ferocious officer who’d do anything to send the desperate goons after Jamie — she owns Sukie’s rightful rage and steals some of the film’s funniest scenes. In shorter roles, Matt Damon and Colman Domingo leave riotous impressions as a conservative and corrupt politician and the film’s chief baddie respectively.

Sometimes, there is the slightest air of obviousness in “Drive-Away Dolls,” which can’t avoid inevitable comparisons to older (and better) idiosyncratic crime capers, many of them by the Coens themselves. But that doesn’t lessen the nostalgic bliss the film stirs in one with all its foul-mouthed, naughty glory; not when the fun had by everyone involved in the project is so palpable on the screen. In that, there is a disarming what the hell, why not quality to Cooke and Coen’s writing, with the carefree words and actions of Jamie and Marian jovially bouncing off the page and landing on the viewers’ eyes and ears with the same jubilant vigor. More importantly, the aftertaste of this madcap escapade is unexpectedly sweet and romantic thanks to its unapologetic commitment to womanly smarts and pleasures. Across dusty Americana landscapes, vibrant locations frozen in time and a pair of trippy flashbacks, “Drive-Away Dolls” has the kind of oomph you simply want to run away with.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to RogerEbert.com, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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Film Credits

Drive-Away Dolls movie poster

Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

Rated R

84 minutes

Cast

Margaret Qualley as Jamie

Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian

Beanie Feldstein as Sukie

Colman Domingo as Chief

Pedro Pascal as Santos

Matt Damon as Senator Channel

Bill Camp as Curlie

Joey Slotnick as Arliss

C.J. Wilson as Flint

Connie Jackson as Aunt Ellis

Miley Cyrus as Tiffany Plastercaster (uncredited)

Director

Writer

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