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Home > ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ (2024): A Review

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ (2024): A Review

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t much more than the sketchy vestiges of a Coen brothers film. Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan star as Jamie and Marian in Drive-Away Dolls with Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, C. J. Wilson, Bill Camp, Colman Domingo, and Joey Slotnick.

An Epic Queer Black Comedy or Simple Detour to Nowhere?

A Coen brother does Thelma and Louise (1991) as a queer black comedy? That could be a great expectation for Drive-Away Dolls (2024), writer-director Ethan Coen’s (No Country for Old Men) story of two lesbians who escape Philadelphia in a driveaway car bound for Tallahassee, Florida, and adventure. But Drive-Away Dolls is more a cinematic outing to disappointment bound to drive away its audience.

It’s 1999, and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) signs up to transport a car from Philadelphia and away from her drab existence as an office worker to Tallahassee, Florida, for a driveaway service. When her friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley) hears about the road trip, she chomps at the bit to come on board and take the wheel. Jamie’s police officer girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) has just broken up with her and kicked her out after she’s spent one night too many cruising lesbian bars and spending the night with other women. The two friends accept the keys to their driveaway car from Curlie (Bill Camp), the counterman at the service, and hit the road. Unbeknownst to all involved, Curlie has somehow given the girls the wrong car. He discovers this the hard way when a cadre of gangsters, The Chief (Colman Domingo) and his two goons (C. J. Wilson and Joey Slotnik), arrive and realize that their driveaway car is missing. An attaché case and a bag that has necessitated a murder to procure are in the trunk. The two goons punish Curlie with a murderous kicking and stomping until The Chief dispatches them after their car and the two women who’ve taken it. The road unwinds, but Marian doesn’t, despite Jamie’s attempts to loosen her up. When Jamie shows up at their motel room with a woman she’s picked up, Marian leaves to go solo with only her Henry James novel, The Europeans, rather than make the ad hoc couple a threesome. While Jamie and a women’s soccer team canoodle at a party, Marian buries herself between the pages of The Europeans. Meanwhile, the goons are in a verbose and tepid pursuit. Will Marian give Jamie some slack, close her book, and open up before the clueless goons catch them?   

Neither Thelma and Louise Nor the Classic Coen Brothers

Thelma and Louise have become so iconic that any story that features two women in a car on a road trip evokes it. Drive-Away Dolls pales in comparison. Thelma and Louise are archetypes of housewives and waitresses of common women whose tragic flaw was to set foot outside of a dystopian patriarchy for a moment of restorative sisterhood. They become rebels. Their story is epic. But perhaps Thelma and Louise is the apple to the orange of Drive-Away Dolls

Since Ethan Coen is the co-writer and director of Drive-Away Dolls, judging it in context with Coen brothers films may be more apt. The Coen brothers are auteurs, filmmakers whose cinematic signature displays them as the authors of their movies. Through their lens, screenwriter Charles Portis’s True Grit (2010) and writer Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) become the Coen brother’s stories, the epic Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey becomes O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and The Big Sleep (1946) becomes The Big Lebowski (1998). Essentially, the Coen brothers film is a freak show where the plot is a comedy of errors. Their oeuvre features a rogues’ gallery of motley criminals: recidivists, kidnappers, hitmen, gangsters, murderers. Many characters are bizarre, quirky, or abnormal. Most are fools, clowns, or buffoons. More than a few are hapless. Their foils are police officers, good spouses, or friends. The Coens assemble these parts into plots like Rube Goldberg machines that involve a chain reaction of ludicrous, darkly comedic components, most of them mistakes or errors. 

 In this context, the failings of Drive-Away Dolls may become more obvious. First, there’s not one wonderfully interesting character in the entire story. Marian and Jamie may be a bit quirky, but Marian’s preferring Henry James to sex or Jamie’s promiscuity aren’t captivating traits. Coen offers a scene of a voyeuristic young Marian who hand-drills a peephole to spy on a nude woman sunbathing in her yard next door. As a girl, she’s somehow compelled to watch, but as a woman, for some unknown reason, she eschews flesh for the printed page. There’s a character with an interesting story there, but there’s no more of it in Drive-Away Dolls. In this film, there’s no one as fascinating as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski or even as watchable as Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) in Burn After Reading (2008), a minor Coen brothers movie. The villains are either stock characters like The Chief and the corrupt politician Senator Gary Channel (Matt Damon) or sketchily recycled from other films like the two goons who are superficial and simplistic retreads of Fargo’s (1996) kidnappers, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare).

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t much more than the sketchy vestiges of a Coen brothers film. CJ Wilson as The Goon, Colman Domingo as The Chief, and Joey Slotnick as The Goon in "Drive Away Dolls."
CJ Wilson as The Goon, Colman Domingo as The Chief, and Joey Slotnick as The Goon in “Drive Away Dolls.” Image courtesy of Focus Features.

None supply satisfactory obstacles or conflict (Sukie gives one of the goons a comic beatdown when they come looking for Jamie). Marian and Jamie practically cakewalk their way through the entire movie without any dire consequences, breaking one of the basic rules of dramatic writing: create conflict and obstacles. At least the inciting incident, the mistake of Marian and Jamie taking the wrong car, is a typical Coen brothers plot device. But the sex scenes aren’t. In Fargo, the kidnappers comically bed a pair of prostitutes in a motel in a quick scene. Drive-Away Dolls has more sexual content than the rest of the Coen brother’s filmography combined. It’s more suggestive than graphic, though, and it isn’t erotic. Marian and Jamie may have some distanced affinity to each other, but not an attraction. There’s no romcom friction or tension between them. To Jamie, Marian seems like a project. How can she get her to unwind and loosen up? Finally, the plot is flimsy and doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Are the valuables in the attaché case and bag worth a million dollars and a murder? If so, why were they just left in the trunk of a driveaway car?                   

The Dolls Are Two-dimensional

The actors don’t fail Drive-Away Dolls as much as its script fails them. Geraldine Viswanathan’s Marian and Margaret Qualley’s Jamie have no spark or chemistry. But that may be more the fault of their mostly two-dimensional, detached characters than their performances.  

Pedro Pascal, Colman Domingo, and Matt Damon are squandered. Pascal, perhaps best known as the eponymous hero of the TV series The Mandalorian (2019-2023), has a cameo that only requires him to mug horror for a fleeting scene. Domingo, known for his starring role in the television series Fear the Walking Dead (2015-2023) and his Oscar-nominated portrayal of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in Rustin (2023),  bestows a cool, efficient authority to The Chief. Damon, who’s been proven a superb actor since his Oscar-nominated performance in Good Will Hunting (1997),  does little more than phone in his cameo as the murderously corrupt Senator Channel. He performs his stage business and reads his few lines without giving the impression of being murderous, corrupt, or senatorial. 

Coen’s Wild Visual Ride Has Stalled

Coen brother’s films are famous for their cinematography. Originally, Barry Sonnenfeld (now best known for directing the Men In Black franchise) shot their movies. His action sequences in Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) are delightful tours de force and wild rides. The great Roger Deakins realized their imagination from Barton Fink (1991) through True Grit (2010) while creating enthralling images for some of the most impressive films of the last 30 years, like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and  Sicario (2015). Their latest cinematographer is Bruno Delbonnel, whose breakthrough film was the wonderful Amélie (2001). Delbonnel shot their Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), and the other Coen brothers, Joel’s solo film The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021). Ari Wegner shot Drive-Away Dolls. Her cinematography for The Power of the Dog (2021), Jane Campion’s most recent film, is fine, but somehow, Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t look as good as half the content streaming on TV. It looks like Coen has visually stalled.  

Drive-Away Dolls Never Gets Out of First Gear

Though its essential plot of two women on a road trip that involves a chase and a crime may beg the comparison to Thelma and Louise, Drive-Away Dolls is no Thelma and Louise. The two movies aren’t even on the same level. Thelma and Louise is an epic driven by two archetypical heroines rebelling against the patriarchy. Drive-Away Dolls, in part, is the story of two quirky lesbians who find themselves pursued by a pair of ridiculous gangsters. The “dolls” aren’t iconic; they’re idiosyncratic. They’re only rebelling against conventions of sex, with Marian’s virtual asexuality on the opposite pole from Jamie’s promiscuity. Their dichotomy could have sparked something in their story and generated some voltage, but it doesn’t raise any conflict, the fuel of drama, and Coen doesn’t plug into it.

Drive-Away Dolls isn’t much more than the sketchy vestiges of a Coen brothers film. Here, instead of their typical Rube Goldberg machine-powered freak show, the jokers are mild, some characters are superficial retreads from other Coen brother films, and there’s not a satisfactory amount of links in the plot’s chain reaction. The experience is like watching a pinball roll into only a bumper or two before spinning between the flippers and into the gobble hole, ending the game. There’s not much for the cast to work with, and some of the performances seem perfunctory. Visually, it’s run-of-the-mill. Disappointingly, Drive-Away Dolls never get out of first gear.

Run-Away Dolls was produced by Focus Features and Working Title Films. It was released in the United States on February 23, 2024. It’s available to stream on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Fandango at Home, and Apple TV.  

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t much more than the sketchy vestiges of a Coen brothers film. Beanie Feldstein as Sukie in "Drive Away Dolls."
Beanie Feldstein as Sukie in “Drive Away Dolls.” Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Drive-Away Dolls (2024) Official Focus Features Trailer

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.