Drive-Away Dolls

Drive, don’t walk, away from Drive-Away Dolls. Ha!

That’s my best Jay Sherman impression, right there. Unfortunately, it also reflets my feelings about the freshman effort from newly brotherless Ethan Coen. The brothers split for no clear reason, and Joel’s first solo project was the golf-clapped The Tragedy of MacBeth, which I didn’t see, but which featured Joel’s wife, the very talented if unlikely star Frances McDormand.

Turns out Ethan wanted to partner with his wife, editor Tricia Cooke, to make movies and she co-wrote the script for the film, which actually displays its title as “Henry James’ Drive-Away Dykes”. (Henry James is a theme of this film, but more on that in a moment.)

We got a Yoko situation goin’ on, is what I’m sayin’. Or maybe even a Linda.

Ethan Coen wearing a mask in 2023.

In the beginning, I found myself apologizing for the movie while I was watching it. It looks like a Coen-brothers knock-off. “I recognize that shot from Blood Simple. Oh, and there’s one from Raising Arizona.” And the film has a road trip with a couple of heavies, reminiscent of Fargo. There’s also a sudden violent tonal shift a la Burn After Reading, not to mention a dildo-centric plot-point (also in Burn).

But, I rationalized, this is to be expected. It’s going to be sort of like some other Coen movies, minus Joel’s contributions.

After the first dozen of my “cheap Coen knock-off” defenses, I gave up. Because not only does this feel like a poorly considered rip-off of their earlier work, it’s the most woke movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Critics, especially in the ’90s, called the Coens’ “cold”. However, it wasn’t that they were cold but that they wrote about a universe which was indifferent to man’s passions, to his drama, to his ambitions—and his morality. Their movies always had something in common with great horror movies: Anyone could die at any moment (or substitute “be thwarted” for die when talking about a comedy).

You know, if you girls would smile more…

But in a woke movie, women can’t ever be imperiled, and lesbians might as well be from Krypton. You know there’s no chance they’ll die, nor are they ever convincingly in danger. (They’re only in danger once, at the climax of the film, but that’s a quick scene devoid of tension.)

So, it’s maybe 30% as clever as a Coen movie, with 0% of the chance for surprise.

The premise is this: A promiscuous lesbian (Margaret Qualley, Poor Things) is thrown out of her former lover’s (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) apartment, and proposes a “drive-away” road trip with a more serious “platonic” friend (Geraldine Viswanathan) and, uh oh, by mistake they get a car that contains something in the trunk that some bad people want. (The actresses do a fine job but their characters are rather unpleasant, a persistent theme.)

So they drive the car to their destination, discovering the contents of trunk along the way, using these contents to blackmail the villain and even kill him with the help of the former lover.

Perils along the way? Uh, well, they’re driving from the northeast to Tallahassee, so they have to drive through the Deep South. That’s an obstacle, right? The police can just sense lesbians within their jurisdiction and hunt them for sport! (It’s the repressive dark ages of 1998!)

Let’s see. They’re struggling with their emotions. The more conservative lesbian constantly flashes back to being a little girl and peeping on a beautiful neighbor woman. (The sort of vignette that’s normally considered reprehensible in a hetero context, but hey: lesbians! There’s a brief peeping scene in A Serious Man, and it plays havoc with the hero’s life.)

You enjoy shots of women looking down and scowling, right?

There’s an aggressive soccer team (who are all lesbians, of course) that threatens to make out with them.

A cop picks up the conservative lesbian for vagrancy. The other one (the manic-pixie-dream lesbian?) gets her out the next morning. It doesn’t actually slow them up or present any real barrier.

There’s a flat tire which reveals the MacGuffin to the girls. The implication is that they don’t know how to change a tire, but it’s immediately a non-problem when they discover the MacGuffin. There’s no tension in the first half of the movie because they don’t know about the MacGuffin and are never in proximity to the guys who do, and no tension after because they casually (and amorally) use it as leverage against the villains.

The two heavies? Well, the tougher of the two is easily dispatched when they go to former lover’s house. The “smarter” one is beclowned by the soccer team. They never seem like a threat. They don’t cross paths much with the girls. (Contrast with Fargo, where the clownish hitmen ae also constantly on the edge of violence.)

There’s a lot of lesbian sex. In a Coen brothers movie (which this is not), sex is always played for laughs. No exceptions. Here, it’s occasionally comic, occasionally serious, rather graphic and more respectful than anything.

The big struggle is internal. What is it? I don’t know. The serious lesbian is struggling to get through Henry James’ The Europeans. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine caring less about something.

I mean, if you love lesbians, maybe this is the movie for you? But Rolling Stone didn’t like it, and they’re all lesbians over there, especially the guys. I saw one review that claimed it was a good genre film, but I don’t know what genre that would be. It’s not a chase movie or a road movie. It’s not really a romantic comedy or a caper.

The heavies.

The worst aspect of this—actually, there are so many bad aspects of this it’s hard to pick a worst one—are the moments of near-Coen-ness.

There are “interstitials” of a sort that are extremely evocative of The Dude’s psychedelic trips, for example. But these work in The Big Lebowski both as a character element (the dude has “the occasional acid flashback”) and as a structural element (because the noir Lebowski references frequently had nightmare sequences when the hero was slipped a mickey).

Here, there are similar interstitials—dream sequences—where a hippie girl (Miley Cyrus, not looking totally off-putting for once) seduces a younger man. This does have a story connection, but until you learn it, it’s just irritating. Whose memory/dream/hallucination is this? It’s like someone saw The Big Lebowski and put this in without understanding the character and story aspects that made it work. Ironically, because this dream explains the plot, these elements could have been better integrated than TBL’s Viking bowling women.

But that might have meant spending more time with the white, heterosexual Republican family values guy (Matt Damon). Ew.

Well, at least she’s not scowling.

The climactic moment of the movie, arguably, is when the villain sits down to negotiate for the MacGuffin and says “Who are you?” and the sassy one replies, “We’re Democrats.”

Hail Caesar, which is the Coen bros roughest work since their studio pictures (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) and the only one of their movies where the protagonist (Josh Brolin, playing a highly romanticized version of Eddie Mannix) knows what’s going on, has a shining gem of a scene.

Mannix is confronting Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) over his ties to the Communist Party, and Baird is regurgitating this Marxist claptrap, when Mannix starts slapping the crap out of him, telling him he should be grateful to the studio and that he’s going to finish the movie and be grateful, and so on. It’s beautifully in character and absolutely unexpected from a modern (2016) movie.

It’s possible that the “grind” Joel references is increasing wokeness in Ethan. If so, that’s tragic, as the two were always described as one-director-in-two-bodies, and the very “coldness” they had been criticized for in the past was an unswerving dedication to the principle that “Man plans, God laughs”.

Perhaps Ethan and his wife are still struggling to find their voice. I wish them luck, but I will never know if they do. Rumors are that the brothers are getting back together for a project, but this movie was so lazy, I don’t know if even a reunion could get me back.


Curlie: The only likable character in the movie, and the only one with any sense of boundaries.

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