For the love of trash | The political punching bag of Drive-Away Dolls

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Fizzy comedy-thriller Drive-Away Dolls has been turned into a political bellwether – but why are we still seeing sex and inclusivity as controversial?

Is Drive-Away Dolls a political film?

On the surface, it tries very hard not to be. Set in 1999, the film finds two lesbian best friends embarking on a road trip pursued by hapless criminals and wall-mounted dildos. The opening scene sees a character stabbed in the neck with a corkscrew; later, in the words of the BBFC, “a woman appears to masturbate a man in order to take a plaster cast mould of his penis”. A chirpy, air-headed slice of east coast Americana, politics seems to be the last thing Drive-Away Dolls is thinking about.

But ask the film’s director, Ethan Coen, and the answer is more complex than you might expect.

“It’s a movie kind of with nothing on its mind, but also with everything on its mind”, he told the Guardian. “There’s a love story, a romantic comedy between two women… The political statement is left tacit. And I like the tacit.”

The idea that what isn’t said can be just as political as what is isn’t exactly new. Still, the extent to which mainstream comedies featuring LGBTQ+ relationships have been perceived as “political” stands apart even in a social climate where divisiveness is par for the course.

The Wrap called the film “exploitative” and “a dated misfire”. “The heavy-handed progressive messaging around sex has an embarrassing-parents quality”, said the Telegraph. Both refer to scenes in which two lesbian women have and enjoy sex (if in a slightly, er, heightened way).

Some audiences are less subtle in their criticism. A sample of Google reviews range from “basically porn” and “the description and trailer said nothing about it being a lesbian movie” to “didn’t get a chance to see the movie because the AMC theater canceled [sic] the showing! I found out after the posted time so I couldn’t get a refund!!!”. AMC’s disorganisation has earned Dolls another of many single-star ratings.

One-star review bombing, again, is nothing new. Bottoms, Bros and Booksmart have all suffered a similar fate in recent years as homophobic punters/bots take issue with unproblematic portrayals of LGBTQ+ relationships. Why quite so many of their one-word titles start with a b is a topic for another article.

It would be all too easy to label everyone who doesn’t like Drive-Away Dolls as bigots. The film’s tone borrows liberally from films essentially intended for a niche or cult audience (60s/70s exploitation cinema and the films of John Waters, to name a few examples). In one sense, Dolls would have disappointed if it hadn’t divided opinion.

The Coen-ness of it all, however, linked as it is to a series of screwball comedy-thrillers with similar tones and plotlines (usually sans-sex), muddies the water somewhat. Many of the structural arrows slung at Drive-Away Dolls could be copy-and-pasted from reviews of their 2008 effort, Burn After Reading. Despite making few films that could be financially described as a mainstream smash (their highest-grossing film, 2010’s True Grit, made $252.2m), the home video success of classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski might trick us into believing any Coen brothers movie is destined for universal acclaim.

Perhaps that’s why the split opinion on Dolls feels like such an outlier. What once made $163.7m in 2008 has earned, at the time of writing, $5.9m in 2024. Star power, streaming and the loss of one half of the brotherly directing duo have all doubtless played a role. At the same time, it’s hard to escape the idea that the current climate, when compared to the comparatively apolitical noughties, must have had some impact on the box office performance of a film which dares to give two lesbian women the roles played by straight men hundreds of times over.

Because what’s startling about Drive-Away Dolls is, if you take away the sex and LGBTQ+ themes, the film really is just classic Coen brothers stuff. Crooked politicians, idiotic mobsters and McGuffin-y briefcases abound in a twisty plot of mishap and misfortune. A filmmaking style never considered to be particularly political becomes so simply with the inclusion of some lesbian protagonists and an openness about sex.

Read more: Drive-Away Dolls review | A road trip like it’s 1999

It’s a continuation of the frequent association of cult films (of the horrific or explicit kind) with LGBTQ+ communities. For whatever reason, heightened style, poppy colours and ludicrous comedy (commonly known, appropriately, as camp) has proved popular with a queer audience even as mainstream culture labels such films as niche.

LGBTQ+ communities will sadly be used to their existence being construed as a political act. Recent conversations around the validity of sex scenes in media have reopened arguments last fought a generation ago. What’s fascinating – and depressing – about Drive-Away Dolls’ reception is that the previously (largely) apolitical filmography of Ethan Coen has been thrust into a cultural debate simply by adding both these elements to his previously mainstream style.  

Is Drive-Away Dolls really political, then? The amount of consternation it’s thrown up would suggest so. We can long for the days when sex and LGBTQ+ themes can be employed in a film without turning it into a political football. To quote something appropriate for a road movie, though: we ain’t there yet.

Drive-Away Dolls is in UK cinemas now.

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