By Thomas M. Puhr.

Ethan Coen’s solo debut is not great, and it doesn’t want to be. Like its protagonists, it’s fast, loose, and fun….”

The Coen Brothers’ seemingly brief split – they just announced plans to reunite for a horror film; be still my heart – has yielded some interesting results. While anyone familiar with the duo’s work knows they’ve always enjoyed both the comic and the tragic, the high- and lowbrow, each artist has leaned more forcefully into one or the other tonal palette since going solo. Joel’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) is unremittingly bleak and, if you ignore Stephen Root’s cameo as the drunken porter, devoid of humor: an expressionistic exercise whose asceticism borders on the fanatical. It’s an impressive debut of sorts, one that left me wondering what the other brother would have in store for us.

Enter Ethan’s Drive-Away Dolls (2024), which is about as far from Shakespearean tragedy as one can get (though it does feature a surprising number of Henry James jokes). If The Tragedy of Macbeth established the elder brother as a formidable auteur who can do it all by himself, then Drive-Away Dolls establishes the younger one as a trickster ready and eager to give all those stuffy Oscar wins a defiant middle finger. His solo debut is not great (neither is Macbeth, to be honest), and it doesn’t want to be. Like its protagonists, it’s fast, loose, and fun: a madcap road trip comedy that almost – but never quite – loses control of the wheel.

Any romcom worth its salt must feature a strong pair of leads, and Drive-Away Dolls has a doozy in the one-two punch team of Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). Their chemistry really shines in Coen’s and cowriter Tricia Cooke’s setup, which relies on that trusty, age-old trope of the odd couple who start out as reluctant friends but soon grow to love each other. Jamie is the boisterous one: confident, sexually liberated, and sporting a Texas accent that’s a perfect fit for her barbed, ratatat dialogue. Marian is the uptight one, the Felix Ungar to Jamie’s Oscar Madison. Still reeling from a breakup (from three years ago), Marian plans a road trip from the East Coast to visit her dear old aunt in Tallahassee. Jamie, out on her ass after her girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein) caught her with another woman, has an idea: They should join forces and get their “shit together, together.” And so the two hit the road.

Review: Two 'Drive-Away Dolls' are on a road trip to Goofytown

We wouldn’t be in the Coen universe without an element of crime. Unbeknownst to Jamie and Marian, their drive-away car is housing a mysterious briefcase, the contents of which a variety of ne’er do wells are literally killing to get their hands on. Chief among these villains are Arliss (Joey Slotnick, clearly having an absolute blast) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), the Laurel and Hardy-esque goons sent to retrieve the briefcase from the girls by any means necessary. I’ll leave the plot synopsis at that, as any attempt to summarize the ensuing misadventures would be both unfair to viewers and futile for this writer. But it’s all very labyrinthine, to say the least, with enough side characters/cameos to populate two normal movies.

Of course, this is all stuff we’ve seen before (including other Coen Brothers releases), but what makes Drive-Away Dolls unique is its transplantation of these well-worn elements to the lesbian bar scene of the late ’90s. And while the director seems to thoroughly enjoy filming beautiful women making out, what makes his efforts transcend leery exploitation is the earnest romance that blooms between his leads. Jamie and Marian are determined, cunning, and immensely likeable; I actually wanted them to end up together – not because plot mechanics told me so but because I just loved hanging out with them.

The film’s worst stumble is an admittedly big one: It isn’t very funny. I had a smile on my face the whole time and chuckled softly on occasion, but Drive-Away Dolls never approaches the belly-laugh heights of The Big Lebowski (1998) or Burn After Reading (2008). And it’s not for lack of trying; the director really layers on the gross-out humor and sexual playfulness, including a nod to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) that may come as a shock to those expecting Oscar-nom Coen rather than The Ladykillers (2004) Coen. But even at its most ribald (and it goes way out there), the script’s big laughs are few and far between.

Luckily, everything moves at such a giddy pace that it’s hard to notice (much less care about) any rough edges. And why be a party pooper? Coen, Cooke, and everyone on the screen seems to be having a great time, and their joy is infectious. Apparently the husband and wife team have already cooked up the script for Honey Don’t!, the second of their planned lesbian B-movie trilogy. You can sign me right up.

Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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