Drive-Away-Dolls review Ethan Coen

Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls is a sexy, funny and kind of flimsy lesbian comedy

3 out of 5 stars

The cold open of Ethan Coen’s solo venture, Drive-Away Dolls, evokes mid-’90s Tarantino. Well, not like Tarantino… but more, the influx of copycat films that flooded the American screens after the success of Pulp Fiction — movies that weren’t quite good, but only occasionally terrible. Movies that once felt like throwaway copies now have a veneer of style lost in most American independent cinema: a sense of colour, rhythm and playfulness.

Set in the 1990s, Drive-Away Dolls follows the misadventures of two lesbians on a road trip. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve accidentally stumbled on a very secret suitcase (echoes of Pulp Fiction) that holds some penetrating secrets. It’s a broad queer comedy with odd-couple-style banter. Conventional, though absurd, the film is occasionally interrupted by psychedelic-inspired sequences that sometimes feature Miley Cyrus as a kind of mother-god of sex. It’s a movie that gets hung up on delicious little details: Henry James, wall dildos and Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.” At just 84 minutes long, the movie crams as much life onto the screen as possible.

The film’s lifeblood is the two heavily contrasting lead characters. Margaret Qualley plays Jaimie, a free-spirited, free-love lesbian with a heavy drawl, a quivering intensity and a gap-toothed smile. She’s lanky and sensuous, always down to party. For the road, her companion is the buttoned-up Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), a lesbian desperately in need of getting laid. Viswanathan grounds the film in a performance as uptight as Qualley’s is loose, pulling out a deliciously straight, barely out-of-the-closet performance that brings a halting momentum to most social interactions, to great comic effect. 

The rest of the cast is equally fantastic. They’re colourful and strange. The movie has a few outright funny moments but is propelled more by the insane charm and playfully mismatched motives of everyone involved. It’s a comedy of errors with a lesbian twist, a film whose greatest asset is its slightness. Also, in an era of squashed libidos, it’s a movie that’s both raunchy and sexy, completely unafraid of embracing its character’s unbridled lust, even as they (only occasionally) suffer the consequences for their desire. It’s a lesbian movie that is neither overly serious nor overly chaste, capturing a happy middle ground of silly and sexy. 

While there are a lot of positives about the film, it’s also hard to fully embrace as a groundbreaking or cohesive experience. While its silliness is often an asset, it also unravels the films during key moments. It all feels a bit weightless and pointless, a movie with all the style and none of the weight. As far as the Coen brothers’ productions, it reveals Ethan as the humour heavyweight of the duo (a theory bolstered by how humourless Joel’s Macbeth adaptation was) but also how, as a team, their differences were complementary, filling the gaps of each other’s weaknesses. While, for my money, this film is far more interesting than Joel Coen’s solo ventures, it ranks very low on the overall Coens oeuvre. 

While there’s more to love than not, Drive Away Dolls can’t quite escape the feeling that it is easily forgotten. It’s a movie that is a good time, but in a rainy Saturday afternoon way, rather than a movie with real staying power. While it’s worth admiring for its unwillingness to couch its queer depictions with “important lessons” or “consequences,” it’s a pretty low bar to hold it to. So, what’s really missing here? It’s hard to say. It’s consistent but lacks one explosive comedic moment. It also lacks some of the depth of the comedic works of the Coen collaborations, feeling a little too untethered from reality, emotionally and ideologically. ■

Drive Away Dolls (directed by Ethan Coen)

Drive Away Dolls opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 23.

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