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

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Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan dodge dildos and severed heads in Ethan Coen’s bright and frothy comedy-thriller. Here’s our Drive-Away Dolls review.

For a duo whose filmography includes outliers like No Country For Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis and True Grit, it’s odd to consider that there’s still a very definite idea of what a Coen Brothers’ movie looks like. It’s odder to think that Drive-Away Dolls hews closer to the neo-noir goofball-ery that made their names than anything they’ve made since 2008. Like Joel’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth before it, this is a Coen Brothers’ movie with the apostrophe moved one place to the left.

Ethan Coen’s first solo narrative feature finds chalk-and-cheese friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee. Jamie is escaping from an explosive breakup with her girlfriend (a brilliantly furious Beanie Feldstein); Marian is trying to visit her aunt and read Henry James.

With their sights set on Floridian climes, the pair agree to drive a battered Dodge Aries which, helpfully, someone wants delivered to the same destination. Unhelpfully, it belongs to a trio of ruffians (CJ Wilson, Joey Slotnick and Colman Domingo), and they want it back.

For better and for worse, then, Drive-Away Dolls is classic Coen stuff. Ethan and Tricia Cooke’s script deploys mysterious briefcases, dildos and comical misunderstandings as frequently as other films use dialogue. The words coming out their own characters’ mouths have all the breezy wit we’ve come to expect, and if your Coens appreciation isn’t inclined towards The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading and Hail, Caesar!, it’s easy to see how the apparently cookie-cutter template might grate this time around.

But absence might also make the heart grow fonder, and there’s an undeniable charm to the almost throwaway fun on full display. In the years since their filmmaking separation after The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Ethan made Drive-Away Dolls while Joel adapted Shakespeare’s grisliest play. Taken together, it really is like the two sides of the family hive mind have been split in two. Now, in the knowledge that America’s foremost directing duo are planning a reunion after all, the fruits of that divide feel more like interesting experiments than the direction the brothers’ solo careers are heading.

Maybe that’s the reason the younger Coen seems happy to let off so much steam here. Cheesy scene transitions and the odd psychedelic pizza sequence which would look more at home on the scoring screens of a Hollywood Bowl than a thriller have a healthily therapeutic tone to them – one explored with the lightness of a self-care spa weekend more than an exercise in emotional exorcism.

Read more: Joel Coen reviews his brother Ethan’s latest film, Drive-Away Dolls

As a leading duo, Jamie and Marian are portrayed with far more affection than the irritating man-babies the Coens between them have tended to fall back on. Qualley’s character is peppy and forthright, Viswanathan’s reserved and occasionally sullen, but both actors bleed charm and warmth throughout. It’s especially impressive since the relative unknowns are surrounded by some huge names, often in blink-and-you’ll miss them supporting roles. Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon remind us of the glitziness of the director’s phonebook, but the fact that the return to the protagonists’ journey was always a welcome one speaks volumes to the level of talent on display.

The whole film seems to exist in a slightly parallel vision of America in 1999. This portrait of a United States packed full of uninhibited, unharassed lesbian bars, with an incompetent criminal underclass more concerned with their roles in “the service industry” than real-world violence, feels not so much like nostalgia looking back to the nineties as optimism looking forward to them. Some will see this as sanitisation – for me, it felt too joyful for all that. The disproportionate barrage of one-star audience reviews Drive-Away Dolls has already attracted speaks to just how speculative this vision of a divided country is – and how badly positive films like this oneare needed.

Drive-Away Dolls is a frothy, inessential comedy-thriller in a way that only makes it feel more essential. What it lacks in discipline and heft it makes up for in good-natured humour and snappy pacing. I feel like it should be celebrated for that. After all, if we can’t have cooky plots and bumbling, likeable characters at the movies – where can we have them?

Drive-Away Dolls is out in UK cinemas on the 15th March.

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