Ethan Coen’s ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Hits the Road for a Lesbian Adventure Brimming With Wit and Absurdity 

A film like “Drive-Away Dolls” doesn’t care about the rules. It also doesn’t care about being proper or aspiring for high-browed respectability. Ethan Coen just wants to bask in the fun of making a movie. This is the first outing of the director without pairing up with his equally famous brother, Joel Coen. Like other sibling director duos as of late, the Coen Brothers are trying to fly solo, which provides a unique window into their respective voices. In 2021, Joel made a rich adaptation of “Macbeth,” full of noir shadows. Ethan’s film is the complete opposite. It’s a zany, funny B-movie with lots of color and upfront lesbian humor. The trip matters more than the plot.

It is still kept in the family since the screenplay is by Coen’s spouse, Tricia Cooke. Her free-wheeling concept is set in 1999. The millennium is approaching and Y2K is a source of anxiety and laughs. Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are two best friends and lesbians. The former has just broken up quite nonchalantly with her cop girlfriend, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), who doesn’t take it as lightly. Marian is the more reserved of the two, spending her free time reading classic literature and wanting to go on a road trip to Florida for some bird watching. The more libertine Jamie just wants to get away. They decide to get a drive-away car from the strange Curlie (Bill Camp) and hit the road. There’s just one problem. In the trunk of the car is a valuable suitcase that used to belong to a mysterious, murdered collector (Pedro Pascal). Seeking the suitcase is the no-nonsense thug, The Chief (Colman Domingo).

Longtime fans of the Coens will find plenty that’s familiar but also genuinely fun in “Drive-Away Dolls.” Classic Coen story obsessions are all around like missing suitcases and colorfully surreal characters similar to “No Country for Old Men” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But Coen keeps it small and shoots in a fast-paced, purposefully B-movie style. He directs scenes like a piano player zooming through “Flight of the Bumblebee,” like the opening scene where Pedro Pascal’s collector gets decapitated. We can clearly see now which Coen was behind all those trippy sequences in films like “The Big Lebowski.” Miley Cyrus appears in a psychedelic flashback worthy of the latter as Tiffany Plastercaster, a character clearly modeled on Cynthia Albritton, who famously made plaster casts of rock stars’ penises. 

Such characters are what drive a memorable Coen film. The hunt for the suitcase showcases everyone. Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson) are the two goons sent by Chief to get the goods, except Arliss is overly confident while Flint is a total brute. Beanie Feldstein lets loose as Sukie, the angry ex-girlfriend who rages against Jamie and is left with an unwanted pet dog. Colman Domingo has become a master of screen smoothness, creating one of those Coen villains who talks with the air of a total professional before eventually snapping. Matt Damon also drops in as a Republican politician in route to win big in Florida, which terrifies Jamie due to his open homophobia. But a caper like this depends so much on the leads and Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan are a perfect team. 

Together, the actors create a likable pair defined by their clashing personalities, which feed into the movie’s funnier set pieces. Jamie is the free spirit who encourages Marian to get laid. When they bump into a female soccer team at a bar, Jamie has no qualms of taking advantage to attend their “basement party,” meaning a massive makeout session with the potential for more. Qualley has always been a striking talent and this kind of rowdy comedy lets her truly show off her range. The same goes for Viswanathan, who plays the deceptive prude. Marian is just scared to open up and this trip does precisely that. There’s plenty of raunchy banter, but it also becomes endearing when the two friends start to wonder why they don’t just hook up. When it turns out the coveted suitcase contains a set of mysterious dildos, it only helps them bonder on a higher level. 

The Coen Brothers have always been masters of the absurd, even in their more serious fare like “Fargo” and “True Grit.” Ethan is now exposed as being the true funny bone of the duo and “Drive-Away Dolls” knows how to inspire big laughs with a sense of the weird. Material that a lesser director would fumble somehow makes sense, like the sudden references to Henry James’ “The Europeans.” It is a feminist romp and borderline grindhouse thriller, which takes a few detours to comment on the perils of American conservatism. Coen keeps it short and sweet at 1 hour and 24 minutes. He knows stretching out the joke kills it. Maybe he’s planning something bigger for the next round, but this one is a worthy road trip with a fulfilling destination.

Drive-Away Dolls” releases Feb. 23 in theaters nationwide.