de facto film reviews 3 stars

With Drive-Away Dolls, his second solo feature without brother Joel, iconic filmmaker Ethan Coen proves that, along with his lifetime editor and wife Tricia Cooke, they too can produce a whacky comedy that offers a pastiche of film noir elements and road movie tropes merged with eccentric characters and zany plots. A lesbian comedy about two lesbian friends that go on a road trip together and find themselves walking into a crazy scheme involving a briefcase, a decapitated head, henchmen, and the re-election bid to U.S. Senator. The film is possibly the raunchiest comedy Ethan Coen has co-written since The Ladykillers, but it’s so unabashedly queer, wickedly funny, and so highly entertaining to watch. The film might not work for everyone, but it’s quite the guilty pleasure.

The film has some genre-bending mixed with a few sex scenes, and some belly laughs. Some who might go in looking for those Coen Bros. movie sensibilities might find themselves disappointed, but the more adventurous filmgoers will acknowledge just what Coen and Cooke are attempting to do by making a campy queer dark comedy in the vein of Ross Meyers, John Waters, and even Gregg Araki should find it satisfying as a whole. In spite of the influences, Coen and Cooke still prove to have a singular style that goes beyond the Coen Bros. style. This probably helps because Tricia Cooke recently revealed that she identifies as queer, and the film’s LGBTQ+ gaze is quite genuine.

Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

Courtesy Focus Features

While the Coen Bros. are now making their own films, the split is showing that it works, and they have their own talents. Joel’s The Tragedy of MacBeth was the more prestige film, where Ethan carries on the more genre element side. Together, they are geniuses; separately, Joel is like the art-house auteur, while Ethan is the more B-movie artist. Tonally, you still have the sensibilities and absurdist tone of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading on display with Drive Away Dolls. Just as The Big Lebowski had the setting of the early 90s, the Drive Away Dolls setting is in Philadelphia and takes place in the year 1999, in which “Y2K” and the 2000 Election are just around the corner.

We follow Jamie (Margaret Qualley), who gets kicked out of her girlfriend Sukie’s (Beanie Feldstein) house after she finds out that Jamie has been cheating on her. Holding regrets and wanting to get out of town, she decides to go on a road trip with her best friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who is very reserved and hasn’t had sex since the breakup of her ex-girlfriend, which has been nearly three years. Jamie wants to stop in various lesbian-friendly spots in South Carolina and Tennessee that are way out of the way for Marian, who is there to visit her close aunt. For Marian, this is a trip to get laid, and she encourages Marian to loosen up and to get laid as well.

Drive-Away Dolls review: A forgettable pastiche of better road movies - IMDb Courtesy Focus Features

They end up renting a car from Curlie (Bill Camp), and through a mix-up, Curlie ends up giving them a rental-free car that is supposed to go to Tallahassee. The situation gets zanier as the car was supposed to be rented out to two quarrelling goons named Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wlson), whose destination was arranged to go to Tallahassee, so Jamie and Marian end up getting a free rental car that just happens to have some valuable belongings. Of course, the rental car never makes it to Tallahassee in time because Jamie and Marian take detours that include a stop at Uncle Gino’s Pizza, where they meet a team of college girl soccer players, and they end up staying the night at their slumber party after Jamie finds out the captain of the team and some of her teammates are into other girls. The goon’s boss, who is referred to as Chief (Colman Domingo), orders them to track down Jamie and Marian’s whereabouts and find the car.

After the tire goes flat in the rental car, the girls discover a briefcase that Chief, and his goons need to locate. In homage to Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, the remains of the suitcase are left mostly ambiguous. However, unlike Pulp Fiction, the objects in the briefcase are revealed, and let’s just say it involves an E-Bay dealer (Pedro Pascal) and a “family values” senator from Florida named Senator Channels (Matt Damon), who can’t allow his reputation to be diminished with his upcoming re-election bid. The subplot involves some bizarre hallucinatory flashbacks involving Miley Cyrus that recall the fantasy sequences in The Big Lebowski.

Drive-Away Dolls Courtesy Focus Features

While some laughs involving dog-humping people and dildos feel sophomoric and fall short of funny, there is still a breath of fresh air for Drive-Away Dolls. It’s a lesbian-driven story that is so brazen, prideful, and actually feels joyous about sex. It’s also a lesbian love story that doesn’t get involved with homophobia, hatred, or the struggles of coming out. The story is about lesbians who go on a road trip and want to have fun before walking into Mayhem. The film isn’t trying to be deep or complex, and that is fine. Not all films need pretensions, and it’s rather liberating to see a film like this be in such high spirits. The original title was Drive-Away Dykes, which I actually like more, but in times of political correctness where both sides get easily offended, it’s clear why the title was changed due to marketing decisions.

Coen and Cooke challenge modern-day puritanism by making a very sexy and mostly amusing lesbian road movie. The film is loaded with many funny jabs to late 90s culture—some of the jokes involving Al Gore, Ralph Nader, and the band Phish deliver some really clever novelty. It was inevitable for the Coen’s to eventually go separate paths, and while it would be great if they could reunite again and make more great art like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man, but Drive-Away Dolls is a welcome reminder that both artists and audiences need a break from high-minded substance time to time. There’s enough discourse on the purpose of sex in cinema, and if anything, Coen and Cooke remind us that sex can be joyful, amusing, and entertaining in modern cinema. The film hits on this approach and it’s quite fabulous for doing just that.

DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS is now showing in theaters.