Review | Ethan Coen’s ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is a bawdy road comedy that sputters


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Coen brothers fans who have breathlessly awaited the solo fiction directorial debut of Ethan might want to cool their jets — or at least adjust their expectations. “Drive-Away Dolls,” the first Coen movie without brother Joel’s imprimatur, is a decidedly mixed bagatelle of B-movie riffs, late-’90s anti-style, lesbian raunch and retreads of beloved Coen classics. As a fast-paced, bawdy road comedy, this isn’t an inauspicious debut as much as a curiously flimsy and forgettable one. Your mileage may vary to the point of completely sputtering out.

Opening in Philadelphia in 1999, “Drive-Away Dolls” stars Margaret Qualley as Jamie, a sexually voracious free spirit who’s the toast (and butter, and jam) of all of her gay friends — except for Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), the girlfriend she’s been cheating on with blithe, pillow-biting regularity. Now finally and unceremoniously dumped (unless removing a sex toy from the wall counts as a ceremony), Jamie moves in with Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), an uptight cubicle dweller who favors Henry James, sensible suits and humorless glares. Jamie insists they cheer up by traveling to Tallahassee to visit Marian’s aunt; what they don’t know is that the drive-away service they sign up with (think: free car rental to Florida) has given them a Dodge Aries carrying some mysteriously valuable contraband.

The mess-up puts Jamie and Marian in the crosshairs of a local crime organization headed by a soft-spoken brute known only as the Chief (Colman Domingo), who enlists two thuggish ding-dongs to get the suitcase back. What ensues is, at least on paper, a zany tour of the South’s finest lesbian bars and “basement parties,” with Jamie and Marian managing to thwart or outsmart their pursuers at every turn. But the plot of “Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t as important as the chances it gives Coen and his co-writer, his wife Tricia Cooke, to throw in every naughty joke and pulpy period reference they can: The “Big Lebowski”-esque segues, staged with ’70s-style wipes, psychedelia and trippy animations, might make sense when the identity of the MacGuffin finally pops up, but they still feel as gratuitous and forced as the rest of the movie.

The lead actresses commit fully to a bit that asks Qualley to deliver startlingly frank dialogue with a molasses-sweet Texas twang; Viswanathan’s prodigious comic chops are wasted on — you should pardon the expression — straight-woman reactions and muttered asides. The men on their trail, played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, do their best with patter that feels lifted from Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s outtakes in “Fargo”; in that darkly funny masterpiece, stupidity was elevated to operatic heights, whereas here it just lies there being, well, stupid. There are bright spots: Bill Camp introduces a welcome note of surly realism even at the height of the film’s most mannered lunacy, and a third-act cameo arrives just in time to almost save the day.

Almost. “Drive-Away Dolls” is one of those movies that is so playful, so full of lighthearted rogues and scamps, that it feels reverse-engineered to defy serious criticism. Taking issue with its cartoonish violence, crude sexual banter and retro-tastic aesthetic feels like one of Marian’s buzz-killing insults: We’re supposed to lighten up and just groove with it.

Which would be easy if Coen could keep the balloon afloat, rather than make it feel like an exercise in aren’t-we-having-fun overcompensation. “Drive-Away Dolls” might not aspire to greatness, but that doesn’t mean it had to be executed with such strenuous self-amusement. What begins as a lascivious lark turns into a frenetic, overbusy slog — which itself morphs into a punchline that has been in search of a setup all along. (Connoisseurs of legendary groupies of the 1970s will get the joke.) “Drive-Away Dolls” might succeed as a kitschy cinematic curio, but it’s as empty and disposable as a Dixie cup on the side of the road.

R. At area theaters. Contains crude sexual content, full nudity, profanity and some violence. 84 minutes.


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