‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Review: Ethan Coen’s Heist Film Is a Dated Misfire

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan fail to hold together a script that revels in the extreme

"Drive-Away Dolls"
"Drive-Away Dolls" (Credit: Focus Features)

It seems we’ve gone into a time warp of sorts over the last month. Many compared last weekend’s “Madame Web” to a movie from the early 2000s, and there’s a similar sensibility with Ethan Coen’s latest heist comedy “Drive-Away Dolls.”

Though filmed in 2022 and released this year, its comedic sensibilities — if you can call them that — feels entrenched in the mid-1990s (not even 1999, when the movie is set). It’s couched in a world where lesbianism feels outrageous, with juvenile humor that too often comes off as exploitative and titillating. But probably the worst offense “Drive-Away Dolls” commits is being painfully unfunny.

Jamie and Marian (Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan) are best friends struggling with individual problems in their love lives. Jamie has just broken up with her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) after cheating on Sukie for the umpteenth time, while Marian has been terminally single for a decade and is content to spend her life at home. Seeking a change, the pair decide to rent a car and travel to Tallahassee. The problem is the car they’ve rented contains a mysterious briefcase wanted by some powerful individuals who are now tracking Jamie and Marian to get it back.

At its heart, “Drive-Away Dolls” is the story of two polar opposites who come to find out what they’re missing in each other, and that certainly holds promise. Director and cowriter Ethan Coen has crafted characters like that before, and the surreal, exaggerated humor of the characters and story feels akin to “The Big Lebowski.” But those nuances end up smothered by a story that doesn’t know where to go and an overemphasis on sexualizing its leading ladies that feels painfully retro.

Qualley and Viswanathan have played their respective characters before to great affect, but here their performances as Jamie and Marian are fairly one-note. Qualley, utilizing an annoying honey-soaked Southern accent and liberally peppering words like “honey girl” into every sentence, plays Jamie as a flannel-wearing nympho who is so perpetually horny as to masturbate beside her best friend for the hell of it. The actress is certainly game for anything, but Jamie never has any real personality outside of ditzy and constantly seeking sex. And, make no mistake, that need for sex is constant in this movie. So much so that the “what’s in the suitcase” conceit ends up having to do with sex as well.

Viswanathan’s Marian is a typical straitlaced, quiet bookworm, more content to read Henry James than engage with others. It’s a quiet performance that leaves Viswanathan floundering to really engage. She’s the one to temper Qualley when she’s acting particularly flamboyant and that’s about it.

The real MVP of the movie is Feldstein’s character of Suki. Presented as a perpetually angry and highly emotional police officer, Feldstein at least seems to understand the assignment and makes the audience laugh with her constant frustration at the story and the characters, Jamie in particular.

The rest of the film is packed to bursting with cameos from the likes of Pedro Pascal — who’s over-the-top scene sets the tone for what’s to come — as well as Matt Damon and Miley Cyrus. The problem is these all feel like cameos, bland reasons to bring in one’s A-list friends, as opposed to crafting characters. Damon’s appearance, in particular, is meant to be wrapped up in the magical Macguffin at the center of the movie but the whole plotline falls apart the minute anyone starts thinking for half a second. This is an era where the internet and 24/7 news isn’t prominent, yet there’s a belief that people will find out someone did something shady in the 1970s? By the time you get to this, things like “how” and “why” will have lost all meaning.

And it can’t be understated how thin the plot feels. At times the movie is connected through trippy, 1970s tinged LSD interstitials that play like commercial breaks. When the focus isn’t on Jamie, Marian and their sex lives, it’s on two henchmen (played by Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) who feel like derivatives of the goon characters from “Suburbicon.” The two have an interesting rapport, continuously needling and griping at each other, but they’re removed from the narrative about halfway through with little rhyme or reason. The same for Colman Domingo, presented as one of the big bads who disappears around the same time.

There’s little to get excited for watching “Drive-Away Dolls,” even though there is a lot of sex to, presumably, get the audiences’ blood pumping. The problem is it’s all awash in an unfunny, nonexistent plotline that feels about 15 years too late. Drive away as fast as you can from this one.

“Drive-Away Dolls” hits theaters Feb. 23.


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