Drive-Away Dolls

And lo, the forces of boredom and time or what have you separated the Coen Brothers temporarily, and gave us a clearer view of what each brings to the team. First was Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, a beautiful but straight forward black-and-white rendition of the Shakespeare jam. What struck me most about it other than the look was how naturally Denzel Washington could say the original dialogue and still sound exactly like the modern Denzel we know and love. I hope some day we get to hear him do that with some Coen dialogue.

Now we have Ethan Coen’s first solo directing joint*, an original piece written with his wife Tricia Cooke, who’s also editor (as she was on THE BIG LEBOWSKI, THE NAKED MAN, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE). Titled HENRY JAMES’ DRIVE-AWAY DYKES on the credits, this is a goofy lesbian road comedy about a pair of mismatched friends doing a drive-away (getting paid to drive someone’s car one way) from Philadelphia to Tallahassee.

*he says he and Cooke both directed but they didn’t really care about the credits and he was already in the DGA

Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS) is an uptight book lover headed to visit her family. She also insists Tallahassee “has live oak and Spanish moss” as well as “good birding”. Jamie (Margaret Qualley, THE NICE GUYS) is her wild southern party girl friend who just wants to leave town because she got kicked out by her cop girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, LADY BIRD). Probly shouldn’t’ve answered the phone “don’t call me during sex” while cheating.

They hit the road, and Jamie (who alternately calls Marian “honey darling,” “honey babe,” “honey girl,” “honey doll,” and “sugar sweet”) decides her #1 goal is to get her friend laid. So they stop at every lesbian bar along the way, go to a college soccer team’s basement makeout party, etc. It’s a mismatched buddy sex comedy because Jamie has a hard time not hooking up but Marian finds the whole thing distasteful and keeps returning to the motel to read The Europeans by Henry James.

Unbeknownst to them, Curlie (Bill Camp, HOSTILES), the guy at the car rental place, pulled a RED ROCK WEST, mistook them for somebody else he was expecting, and gave them a car with a very particular package in the trunk. So now they’re in the sights of some kind of gangster or something called Chief (Colman Domingo, voice of Unicron, TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS) and his two bickering henchmen, Flint (C.J. Wilson, A VIGILANTE) and Arliss (Joey Slotnick, “Burger Jungle Manager”, IDLE HANDS). The simple but very effective joke with them is that Flint is a normal mob enforcer type who threatens and manhandles people, Arliss always calls him an idiot for not first trying to just be nice and ask people direct questions, and Arliss is repeatedly shown to be correct.

So these guys are coming for them, questioning people who know them, and who they have encountered along the way, but for a while Marian and Jamie have no idea about that, they’re just in a raunchy buddy comedy. A couple of the big names on the credits pop up in small roles, the type that are both funny in content and in the thought of “ha ha, he came in just to do that.” In the case of Matt Damon (TITAN A.E.) it’s not surprising to see him pop in for a cameo or guest role (see: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, THOR: RAGNAROK, NO SUDDEN MOVE), but this is a particularly rich one. In the case of Damon’s THE GREAT WALL co-star Pedro Pascal you gotta hope he had a sense of humor about the fact that he gets to be in Coen movie but it’s just this particular part.

As much as I love all the Coen Brothers styles, their broad comedies hit me the hardest, and this is definitely in that category. It has by far the most jokes about dildos of any Coen movie so far, which is a natural extension of the subject matter, but also gives me theories about who wrote a certain part of BURN AFTER READING. It’s an intentionally simple plot just designed to bring together some funny characters in silly situations, so it feels very light and maybe insubstantial. But then again it has an essential sweetness to it in this friendship, the way they’re both a pain in the ass in their own humorous way and you can see them both realizing it and learning to change for each other.

I certainly wouldn’t put it on the same shelf as THE BIG LEBOWSKI or RAISING ARIZONA, but I also don’t think it’s a fair comparison, since those are so meticulously detailed and produced. This is a low budget quickie that happened when semi-retired director husband and pretty-new-to-directing wife decided to dig out an old script as a fun project during Covid lockdown. It’s probly closest to BURN AFTER READING, but with more of a John Waters/Russ Meyer spirit.

Based only on THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH and DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, I gotta assume that Joel leans heavier on the technical directing stuff and Ethan on the writing. There are some touches to this, mostly post-production choices, that I think are very cheesy, which I would not say of MACBETH or any movie the brothers ever made together. They keep using these corny wipes that manage to make an effortlessly hilarious movie feel like it’s trying too hard to be funny. And there are a bunch of not-ready-for-prime-time psychedelic sequences, often set to “Maggot Brain,” to impressionistically represent part of the backstory. I think they were going for the feel of the perfect BIG LEBOWSKI dream sequences, but landed a little closer to a fractal CD-ROM.

It also has more digital gloss to it than any Coen Brothers movie, but that’s me being picky. The exaggerated lighting and colors look pretty and fit the tone well. They hired cinematographer Ari Wegner (IN FABRIC) on the basis of ZOLA, since that also took place largely in a couple different hotel rooms. The production designer is Yong Ok Lee (THE FAREWELL, MINARI).

But despite the different (for good and bad) visual approach, you could pretty much hear any line spoken in the movie and know it was by a Coen brother. To me it’s a constant delight just to hear the odd language choices, the repeated phrases, the quick banter where characters can somehow have one foot on each side of the border between dumb and witty. So it feels bad by the sky high standards of Coen Brothers movies, but it made me laugh more than anything I’ve seen since BOTTOMS, so it was good.

We also now have evidence to support that both Coens are great with actors. Qualley in particular seems like a pantheon Coens character as soon as she starts talking – someone I’d want to see in a movie regardless of plot, I just want to see what she says and does, whatever situation she’s in. Just one of her funny quirks: how she tries to scare Marian about how they’ll be treated in the south but then walks up to the front desk in a small hotel and says, “Hiya. Do you know where the Butter Churn is? It’s a dyke bar. Or do you have, like, a Time Out Wilmington?”

Viswanathan’s role is more subdued, but crucial to the chemical equation. To me she’s the more relatable one, but also I want her to listen to Jamie and have a fun time. Often you have one character who’s outrageous and another character who’s gonna freak out at the outrageousness; Marian works well because she mostly frowns and rolls her eyes. If someone annoys her she won’t give in, even if it’s a cop who’s gonna arrest her for it.

It’s a period piece, set in 1999. I wonder if Jamie or Marian saw THE BIG LEBOWSKI (released in 1998, set in 1991)? There are references to Y2K, Ralph Nader, and same sex marriage only being legal in some states, but apparently there’s no meaning to the choice of time period other than Coen and Cooke wrote the script in the early 2000s, based on Cooke’s experiences in lesbian bars a few years earlier. Knowing only that this was a Coen brother and his wife, I’d wondered if anyone would accuse them of overstepping their bounds in making a movie all about lesbians, but then I read in a Moviemaker article about their “non-traditional” marriage. She identifies as lesbian but they became friends on the set of MILLER’S CROSSING and “the relationship evolved.” They have two kids and have been married for 31 years but have for some time also had separate partners outside of the marriage. They wrote DRIVE-AWAY DYKES (original title) “many, many years ago as a way for us to spend time together,” according to Cooke. In 2007 it was announced with their friend Allison Anders directing, but they couldn’t find the financing. “At that time, it was possible for the industry to conceive of serious gay stories, but not trashy, stupid gay stories,” Coen said.

It’s not for me to decide, but having more room for trashy, stupid gay stories seems like a positive step to me. Even if it’s not, I had a great time with this one. It didn’t set the world on fire (disappeared from theaters too fast for me to see it), but I’m glad Coen & Cooke are already trying to do another one called LET’S GO BEAVERS.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 17th, 2024 at 1:26 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Drive-Away Dolls”

  1. I think “insubstantial” is a good descriptor for this one. It’s fun enough, though. I didn’t find it *as* funny as this review describes, but I thought that final scene with Chief and his henchman was hilarious. The reveal of what the animosity has been about this whole time and then the sudden escalation made me laugh pretty hard.

  2. The way Denzel delivered “take thy face hence!” is seared into my brain.

  3. I was so damn excited for that movie and then it just came and went and I didn’t even notice when it was released. Personally I wonder if that split up also means that Ethan was the driving force behind the more goofy Coen Bros flicks and Joel was behind the more serious ones.

  4. I was really looking forward to this one– a Coen brother, back in wacky caper mode, with two of my favorite young actresses– but it didn’t quite work for me. Some of the dialogue/delivery was clunky, rhythms were off, the psychedelic bits felt like padding to get it past the 80 minute mark, etc. In the early going it reminded me a lot of the Coen-scripted CRIMEWAVE, with its wacky criminals and cartoon energy/silly editing cuts. In other ways I also got a Russ Meyer tone from it. If they had kept making GRINDHOUSE movies, this would make a good first half of GRINDHOUSE 6 or whatever. You’d probably want Joel Coen to do the second half, but you know it’d probably be Josh Becker (as it stands, it might pair well with LUNATICS: A LOVE STORY).

    All that said, considering this is maybe the horniest movie since HOWARD THE DUCK, I thought the central relationship was pretty sweet in its way.

    Not to diminish Tricia Cooke, since I feel like she was definitely a driving force here, but based on the two “solo” Coen productions, I find it very interesting how much each brother is missing a key element the other brings. So I hope they reunite one day, though I will certainly watch more lesB-movies if Coen and Cooke can get them made.

  5. Great review, I also enjoyed this one. I agree some of the film making choices were a little corny and awkward but overall it was fun.

  6. The reason we don’t make movies like this anymore is because marketing is so pricey. But I enjoyed this one because of how slim and insubstantial it was, how it was filled with a few creative digressions that maybe didn’t work, how it seemed to be filled with both Oscar winners and broad commercial actors, and how the dialogue was consistently “Hm!” funny as opposed to “ha-ha” funny, in true “Hudsucker Proxy” style.

    I guess I don’t have a ton to add. But what is on my mind is the impossible question as to how this could have ever been seen as a moneymaker. Not that it was doomed from the start, but how could you have crafted this, with the elements in place, as a box office hit, and what exactly drove people away.

    You could speculate that it’s homophobia. The average American who sees a woman in a movie automatically thinks she’s heterosexual, so there’s some mental gymnastics that viewer has to do when the character isn’t overtly homosexual or LGBTQ (and while this movie is VERY gay, the main characters are characters first, funny and likable and occasionally at odds). This is also something straight America needs to handle properly — a lesbian narrative with zero regard for the male gaze. Which says very little about the male gaze itself, since Margaret Qualley is obviously gorgeous and Geraldine Viswanathan is a cutie, but they are both not visually sexualized in common ways. I’d have to ask a lesbian about this! But yes, while I think most people are tolerant of LGBTQ lifestyles, there’s still a bit of NIMBYism in the approach.

    Or is it misogyny? It’s funny, people flocked to “Bridesmaids” all those years ago, suggesting that female-led broad comedies would be a thing. And then the studio, naturally, didn’t follow up on that at all. Where are all the broad female comedians? I guess studios don’t make many comedies any more, since comedy doesn’t travel, and Singapore would have no idea what to do with a Beanie Feldstein. Funny women should move the needle more than they do! But of course you’d have to acknowledge that even someone like Kristen Wiig… kinda had it going on in a pretty familiar way! Melissa McCarthy seemed to buck this for a while, but her need to work with her marginally-talented husband kind of led her career into a cul-de-sac (even if they’re so very cute together). The two leads are not stars, but maybe that was the problem in advertising — you have to make the audience THINK these are stars. How do you do that without the male gaze? I guess you’d need funnier material.

    Or maybe it was just the title? It always sounded clumsy to me, and a little too busy to convey the straightforward nature of the plot. I kinda think 95% of the time, movies flop because of a title. But I don’t know. I’m still bummed that “Booksmart” took a bellyflop at the box office. And I also think Beanie Feldstein should be in everything. So what do I know?

  7. I haven’t seen this one yet but I plan to watch it soon and am looking forward to it. There were a few weeks there that I was really mad at the movies and couldn’t bring myself to go see anything. And that was because of how this one and LISA FRANKENSTEIN disappeared so quickly. I understand that they were never going to be big hits but having two female centric movies come and go so quickly at the same time when movies like WONKA and THE BEEKEEPER (both movies I enjoyed quite a bit) were still getting screenings weeks after opening really pissed me off. I think I might not have been so mad if I hadn’t looked into getting tickets for a showing of LISA FRANKENSTEIN and it was sold out but then it was gone a week later. Honestly, though, I think there might have been something funky with that – like something wrong with the app, because shows don’t sell out anymore unless it’s something like Marvel on the opening weekend.

  8. This is actually the first in an entire thematic trilogy of lesbian exploitation comedies that Ethan & Tricia are making. The next one, HONEY DON’T!, is in production right now. It’s a private detective neo-noir, again with Qualley in the lead.

    GO BEAVERS! will be the third one, but that one apparently won’t be made right away. Per Ethan himself, he and Joel are reuniting to do a horror movie together before he closes this trilogy out.

    In other words, it seems like we have a whole lot of Coen-created cinematic fun on the way.

  9. Like you said, it was insubstantial and breezy but a good time all the same. I also couldn’t help but draw parallels between this and Thelma and Louise? Given that Drive Away Dolls was written in the early 2000’s, I wonder if it was written as a response? Kinda of like T&L if it was allowed to be as openly gay as was hinted at? And also have a happy ending.

  10. Oh wow, Margaret Qualley lesbian private eye Coen/Cooke comedy sounds like what the world needs.

  11. caruso_stalker217

    April 19th, 2024 at 11:18 pm

    I just watched this expecting it to be a bit of harmless fluff, which is exactly what it is. Is it great? No. But it’s funny-ish, with genuinely humorous parts (the goons especially). Mostly I liked it for the relationship between the leads, which is genuinely sweet.

    And as a man who is attracted to women, I appreciated the boobies.

    Also, most importantly, it’s like 74 minutes without credits. That is a running time you can’t fuck with.

  12. Y’all here seem to generally like this one more than me…I thought this was TERRIBLE, the kind of awful movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. I guess at least it wasn’t bland. But it was so wandering, so unfunny and cutesy, that it wasn’t just bad it was actively annoying. Interesting to see the totally different Coen movies that got made separately. I hear they’re going to make a real horror movie together again so that may be amamzing, plus David Chase is going to do one so hopefully it’s better than his other feature work. That guy gets a lot of praise but maybe he really does need a writing staff.

  13. I haven’t had the chance to see it but Love Lies Bleeding looks like the good version of this story.

  14. caruso_stalker217

    April 24th, 2024 at 9:15 pm

    I posted my first comment five days ago and I’ve now watched the film three times and pre-ordered the soundtrack on vinyl.

    Does that make me DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS’ number one fan?

  15. I think so! Congratz!

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