Friday, April 19, 2024

“DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS”

THE STORY – In search of a fresh start, two women embark on an impromptu road trip to Tallahassee, Fla. However, things quickly go awry when they cross paths with a group of inept criminals along the way.

THE CAST – Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp & Matt Damon

THE TEAM – Ethan Coen (Director/Writer) & Tricia Cooke (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 84 Minutes


If you’ve been craving something to fill the Coen Brothers-shaped hole in your life, you were likely a bit disappointed with Joel’s first solo film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” as straight an adaptation of Shakespeare as you can get. While the film’s visual sensibilities felt like a Coen-esque take on German Expressionism, the off-kilter wit we associate with the Coens mainly was missing. Well, hold onto your butts because Ethan Coen’s first solo narrative feature, “Drive-Away Dolls,” has all the visual and verbal wit of such past Coen Brothers hits as “Raising Arizona” and “Burn After Reading” fully intact. Ethan may not be as strong a visual storyteller as his brother, but his writing more than makes up for it here. Even when the visuals get away from him, the dialogue sings, especially since it’s coming from performers who understand the tone perfectly.

“Drive-Away Dolls” (original title: “Drive-Away Dykes”) unfolds like a riff on the old Jean-Luc Godard maxim about needing only a girl and a gun to make a movie. In this case, all Coen needs is a girl and a car. Two girls, to be exact. The first, Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), fills the classic goody-two-shoes role: She’s a buttoned-up, rule-following wallflower who prizes logical decision-making over impulsive plans. On the other hand, Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is an outgoing, self-confident free spirit with impulse control issues. When Jamie breaks up with her girlfriend and gets kicked out, she drags Marian on a road trip to Florida, using a drive-away service to get a car that needs to be driven to Tallahassee. The only problem is that the drive-away service manager (Bill Camp) gave them a car belonging to some shady guys who left a body and a briefcase in the trunk. They hurry off after Jamie and Marian on a mission not to let the two women escape.

The plot feels like something out of a ’60s or ’70s B-movie, and the Russ Meyer influence is evident throughout. Sometimes, it’s a little too evident – the psychedelic scene transitions don’t fit with the film’s tone, and the late reveal that connects them to the narrative feels incredibly flimsy. The film’s overall vibe, though, pays homage to old B movies in the best way, dropping Jamie and Marian into situations that should be titillating but instead feel more playful. There’s a certain innocence to Meyer’s films, in particular, that’s difficult to define but which Coen and co-writer (and wife) Tricia Cooke capture perfectly in both the dialogue and filming style. Perhaps the best example of this is the discovery of what’s in the briefcase and what the characters decide to do with it. Without getting into spoiler territory, the hilarious reveal initially leads to what you might expect. Still, the film eventually ends up using it to say something about Jamie and Marian in a wholly unexpected way.

The film’s ping-ponging between lewdness and sweetness would cause more whiplash if Coen and Cooke hadn’t written such delectable dialogue and if they hadn’t cast the film so perfectly. The Coens have always had a fantastic eye for casting the oddballs that populate their cinematic worlds, and this film is happily no exception. From Camp’s surly deadpan to Colman Domingo’s stately yet seedy bearing to Beanie Feldstein’s brash comedic energy to Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson’s perfectly mismatched bumbling, every role has been cast with an actor that brings the exact right energy to make them pop off the screen. Every character, even those with only one line, sticks out with memorable faces and speech patterns. An ensemble of note-perfect oddball characters can’t survive without great leads, though, and Qualley and Viswanathan take to the Coen-esque dialogue like they were born speaking it.

Both actresses understand how far they can push stylized dialogue like this without going too far, and they play off each other beautifully. Viswanathan’s clipped line readings and stiff body language are the perfect foil for Qualley’s loose-limbed charisma and deep-fried Southern twang. Though they never turn Jamie and Marian into caricatures, they use more subtle moments to deepen their characters wherever possible. Few things are more pleasurable than rat-a-tat screwball dialogue when done well. Still, Qualley and Viswanathan don’t need Coen and Cooke’s dialogue to give thoroughly entertaining performances. They both have wonderfully expressive faces and know when to go big and when to hold back, allowing their performances to transcend the material. Jamie and Marian always feel real even though the world around them is heightened, which really gives the film the gas it needs to get across the finish line.

“Drive-Away Dolls” may not reach the delirious heights of the Coens’ best work. Still, its idiosyncratic humor and balls-to-the-wall energy make it stand out among the bland, broad comedies that Hollywood usually churns out. The film is bursting at the seams with personality, and that abundance helps smooth over the few rough patches that don’t work. There hasn’t been anything like it, certainly not recently, that has been executed with such writerly flair and directorial smoothness. The film’s setting, the early 2000s, even manages to add some stakes and fun social commentary to the proceedings. “Drive-Away Dolls” may be a light-as-a-feather lark of a road trip buddy comedy, but each new character and plot reveal adds another layer of silly fun, resulting in the most surprising, funniest film of the year so far.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan lead a tremendously fun cast in a very Coen-esque trip into the American South.

THE BAD - Some of the most distinctive directorial flourishes feel out of place.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan lead a tremendously fun cast in a very Coen-esque trip into the American South.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some of the most distinctive directorial flourishes feel out of place.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS"