Drive-Away Dolls film poster and movie review

Movie Reviews

Drive-Away Dolls

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on February 23, 2024

Theatrical Release:
February 23, 2024

Despite an intermittently witty original screenplay, Ethan Coen's latest solo comedy lacks the narrative cohesion, aesthetic allure, and cinematic formalism of the offbeat triumphs he's made with his brother.

Running Time84 min


Running Time 84 min


Ethan Coen

Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke

Margaret Qualley (Jamie), Geraldine Viswanathan (Marian), Beanie Feldstein (Sukie), Joey Slotnick (Arliss), C.J. Wilson (Flint), Colman Domingo (The Chief), Pedro Pascal (The Collector), Bill Camp (Curlie), Matt Damon (Senator Gary Channel), Connie Jackson (Aunt Ellis), Annie Gonzalez (Carla), Gordon Macdonald (Cicero's Waiter), Miley Cyrus (Hippie - uncredited)

Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

by Luke Bonanno

Joel and Ethan Coen have not made a movie together since 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. That means, on top of all the other changes the film industry has underwent in the past five years mostly for the worse (a consolidation of studios, pushes away from moviegoing and towards streaming subscriptions with ads no less, etc.), we have been denied one of the longest and most fruitful partnerships in the history of cinema.

The brothers who together wrote, directed, produced and edited such films as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, and True Grit, have started to blaze their own trails and the early results have not been outstanding. Joel made 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, an Oscar nominee for lead actor Denzel Washington which failed to find the modern appeal in Shakespeare despite plenty of style and the street cred that comes with A24 distribution. Now, Ethan gives us Drive-Away Dolls, an entertaining but middling caper that sheds further light on which each brother has brought to their long-rewarding collaboration.

Randomly set in 1999, Dolls reveals that Ethan’s interests lie in bold, quirky characterization, co(s)mic coincidence, and texture. But despite the intermittent wit of this original screenplay on which he shares credit with his wife, the duo’s sometimes editor Tricia Cooke, this new movie lacks the narrative cohesion, aesthetic allure, and cinematic formalism of the brothers’ enduring offbeat triumphs.

Dolls opens with a man named Santos (Pedro Pascal) getting brutally and fatally attacked in an alleyway over an aluminum briefcase. Through a misunderstanding, that case winds up in a car that newly single free spirited lesbian Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and her buttoned-up friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are renting to drive from Philadelphia to Tallahassee.

Jamie (margaret qualley) and marian (geraldine viswanathan) get more than they bargained for when they rent a car to drive down to tallahassee in "drive-away dolls. "

It is clear why the movie was announced as an untitled lesbian road trip comedy in 2022. It’s also easy to believe that Coen and Cooke originally wrote the script in the mid-2000s. This absolutely feels like something that would have been made around 2004, when a movie like Jim Jarmusch’s black and white anthology Coffee and Cigarettes could gross over $2 million in 47 theaters. When small and medium movies were in abundance and were just as likely to find an audience on DVD as on the arthouse circuit.

The industry has changed dramatically in the past twenty years and especially in the past six. Today, no movie made for adults seems safe from studio second guessing, cost-cutting, and getting sent straight to streaming. When The Holdovers, one of the most acclaimed, decorated and rewarding indies of the decade, hobbles to just two-thirds of what Focus Features acquired it for, nothing is assured. Despite the flashy cast, which also includes Beanie Feldstein, current Academy Award nominee Colman Domingo, and small roles by Matt Damon and Miley Cyrus, and despite Coen’s sterling track record with critics, Dolls is more or less certain to underperform. It’s a hard sell movie without an obvious audience. Coen has described the project as being inspired by the early ’70s exploitation flicks he saw as a teen. To that effect, the end credits rename the film Drive-Away Dykes and cheekily attribute it to Henry James, the author whose books are frequently glimpsed at and debated within.

The chief (colman domingo) and goons (cj wilson, joey slotnick) who pose danger to our heroines are left with unsatisfying trajectories.

Those who were teens in the early ’70s may have spending power these days, but they are not a demographic that Hollywood has shown much interest in catering to lately. Nor can they be counted on to show up when they are given something nostalgic and resonant, as The Holdovers‘ aforementioned soft box office numbers make clear. But Dolls‘ inevitable box office disappointment cannot be chalked up entirely to the changing marketplace. This is a film that lacks the confidence of the two-sibling Coen movies. Its stretches of clever, humorous wordplay too often give way to calculated quirk and what feels like a well-intentioned but disingenuous portrayal of lesbianism via some extreme caricatures. The proceedings frequently border on camp and while that approach may be integral to the appeal of movies by John Waters and Todd Haynes, it never perfectly fits the material that Coen and Cooke have written.

Damon pops up as a family values senator with skeletons in the closet, an easy to spot caricature that harks back to a bygone era that may never have even existed. If the disparate threads such as his all came together, Dolls would leave you happy and fulfilled. But the movie practically relishes in not tying up loose ends. We spend much of the movie with bickering goons played by the long-underused Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, a dynamic that will obviously remind you of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s criminal partnership in Fargo. The back-and-forth personality clash amuses, but never adds up or develops the way it would in a better-written film. Coen and Cooke don’t seem to care to give these characters meaningful trajectories and, as a result, the viewer feels foolish for expecting otherwise. Sure, it’s diverting in fits and never takes itself seriously, but it’s so plain to see there’s a much sharper and more satisfying movie that did not materialize here.

In an interview last year, Ethan revealed he is developing a new project with Joel, news that will delight fans of the unique duo. In the meantime, Drive-Away Dolls gives us some, but clearly not all of the ingredients that have been so essential to making the brothers’ repertoire stand out and hold up.

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