Review – Drive-Away Dolls: Ethan Coen takes a wrong turn with this gay road caper

Every pivotal idea in this movie has been seen before and often been done better


Car trouble: Margaret Qualley as Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian in Drive-Away Dolls


I wanted to like this film. It is directed by Ethan Coen, who, with his brother Joel, is responsible for some of the finest American films of the past 40 years beginning with Blood Simple in 1984.

Since then plots of unintended consequences have served up such delights as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink and, of course, the Jewish midlife crisis movie to end them all, A Serious Man. The theory of cock-up rather than conspiracy is often key and so it is with this caper written by Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke.

The project is created as a homage to B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is set in December 1999 and centres on that old trusted and enjoyably trashy movie vehicle, the road trip.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are lesbian friends who want to get away from their lives. Jamie has just left her girlfriend, a tough but emotionally needy cop played by Beanie Feldstein who is very watchable on film though is more recently known for flopping in her 2022 Broadway performance in the title role of Funny Girl.

The other half of the friendship is Marian who has left her boring office job and decides to visit her aunt in Tallahassee, Florida. Jamie invites herself along and discovering that Marian hasn’t had sex in ages insists they stop en route at every gay bar they can find. The complicating factor is that their mode of transport is a thing called the drive-away car in which it is possible to get free transport by driving a vehicle to a destination where it is needed and where, of course, the traveller also wants to go.

Minutes before Jamie and Marion turn up at such a company to enquire if a car is available to go to Tallahassee, the man behind the counter is briefed on the phone by a gangster who informs that a couple of his henchmen are about to pick up a car to take it to — you guessed it — Tallahassee.

The girls turn up first and are given the gangster’s car, which has something illicit and of value hidden in the spare wheel compartment. Two inept hoodlums (Joey Slotnick and CJ Wilson) give chase. From here it seems that every pivotal idea in this movie has been seen before and often been done better. Except that is the idea of giving this road trip a queer identity that was always the point of Coen and Cooke’s pet project.

Cooke, who has edited many a Coen brothers movie, identifies as queer and one assumes provided the insights into queer culture. The sex is raunchy, and gags about dildos abound. But the plot would not work if the friends were straight so no reason to think it can fare better with gay protagonists. The scene in which the gangsters bicker about their world view is very sub-Pulp Fiction. And the rest is sub every other film to which Coen and Cooke are attempting to pay homage. Even cameos by Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon can’t save it.

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