Review: In Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen Maps a Road Movie with Plenty of Sex and Laughs Along the Way

At least for now, the Coen Brothers as a filmmaking unit, are no more. Three years ago, Joel Coen adapted Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, and now brother Ethan counters with the rollicking B-movie Drive-Away Dolls, about a pair of lesbian best friends who inadvertently get mixed up in a criminal enterprise that threatens to ruin a select group of very powerful men in a very unique way. Written by Coen and Tricia Cooke, this very silly, slightly subversive and free-spirited romp follows the adventures of the outgoing and sexually liberated Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and her demure bestie Marian (a beautifully understated Geraldine Viswanathan), who spontaneously decide to take a road trip to Tallahassee shortly after Jamie is kicked out of the apartment she shares with her police officer girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein).

The ladies decide to take a drive-away car (in which you drive a car that is needed in another city at a reduced rental rate), and when the owner of the rental establishment (Bill Camp) hears where they’re going, he immediately gives them a very specific car that has been earmarked to be picked up and driven to Tallahassee. In fact, the car was meant to be picked up by two other people—a pair of goons named Arliss and Flint, played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson—and delivered to someone very specific in said mid-size Florida city. And when word gets back to their boss, The Chief (Colman Domingo), the two are sent on their own road trip to figure out who has their car and where exactly on the road they are.

It turns out the car in question has a couple of very interesting packages in the trunk, and as long as the girls don’t open either package, they should be safe, which of course means they open both as soon as they discover what they’re hauling and that someone is desperate to find them. Both packages have something to do with an opening sequence in which a rather twitchy individual (Pedro Pascal, basically doing an extended cameo) possessing both items is subdued while attempting to unload his merchandise.

The rest of Drive-Away Dolls is part road movie, part slow-motion chase film, with the women making sidetrips (much to Marian’s dismay; she loves a good on-time schedule) all over the southeast and Jamie often deciding where to stop based on how likely they are to hook up with available women. The film isn’t afraid to get a bit steamy, although Coen’s presentation of lesbian sex feels a bit like he’s giggling behind the camera like he’s never seen two women kiss before. The titillation element feels childish and may actually be intentional, to go along with the B-movie feel of the rest of the movie.

Once the ladies have a clearer sense of who is after them and why, they try to sell the packages to the people chasing them, and end up face to face with the one pulling all the strings, a local conservative politician played by none other than Matt Damon, whose reputation and career could be ruined by the contents of the trunk. All hell begins to break loose when Officer Sukie shows up in Tallahassee to find out what has happened with her ex.

The energy of Drive-Away Dolls is youthful and independent, like one of the earliest Coen brothers films, including an inspired cast of relative newcomers who are some of the most captivating young actors working today. Qualley and Viswanathan have an irresistible, odd-couple chemistry that makes them charming, funny, and even sexy together. And scene-stealer Feldstein is a walking explosive device with anger issues. The film is a fairly hard R-rated affair thanks to an unapologetic amount of sex, violence and four-letter words, all in the service of providing a stable platform for some truly unhinged and hilarious performances. It’s not attempting to make a statement about anything substantial; it simply wants to get our blood pumping a little between laughs. And as a vehicle for pure entertainment, I believe it fully succeeds.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.