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13 March 2024

Drive-Away Dolls should be a classic Coen caper – but isn’t

Ethan’s first feature film without Joel sounds like a romp, but misses every beat. Do the brothers need each other after all?

By David Sexton

The Coen brothers have given us 40 years of great American films, not consistently, but abundantly. Some have been dark, some funny, the best both. Blood Simple, their feature debut in 1984, was an entirely black thriller. Their next, Raising Arizona of 1987, was a helter-skelter comedy. Fargo, tonally unlike any film that had come before in its simultaneous embrace of stupidity and virtue, appeared in 1996, followed by the perpetually enjoyable farce The Big Lebowski in 1998. There have been hits and misses. No Country for Old Men (2007), their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, just seems better and better, more and more consequential, every time you see it. Their most recent movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs of 2018, was, in comparison, a slight collection of six comic cowboy vignettes.

Then the Coens took a break from working together. Joel, the elder at 69, has since produced The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), a relentlessly tough version, starring Denzel Washington, in black and white, while Ethan, the younger at 66, made a fine documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind (2022), using archive footage. Now here’s Drive-Away Dolls, directed by Ethan Coen, co-written and produced with his wife of nearly 30 years, Tricia Cooke, a film editor and gay activist. Drive-Away Dolls (originally titled “Drive-Away Dykes”) sounds like fun, like classic Coen.

The setting is Philadelphia in 1999, mainly to avoid those plot-curtailers that are mobile phones. A sex-mad live wire from Texas, Jamie (Margaret Qualley), and her ass-kicking police-officer partner Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) break up thanks to Jamie’s promiscuity. Kicked out of their apartment, Jamie joins her friend – the prim but adorable Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who’d rather read Henry James than get laid – on a road trip to Florida, where Marian plans to visit relatives and get in some birding.

But the one-way delivery car they take, a Dodge Aries, turns out to have a MacGuffin in the trunk: a gleaming metal case containing not money or radioactivity this time but a collection of realistic dildos cast from the penises of celebrities. (This backstory, based on the real-life exploits of the famous groupie “Cynthia Plaster Caster”, is sketched in with psychedelic inserts, briefly featuring an uncredited Miley Cyrus.) There are villains who want the case back, for one of these celebrities (Matt Damon, in a short, dull cameo) is now on the path to political power, posing as a good family man. The chief villain, played by smoothie Colman Domingo, orders a couple of inept and constantly bickering goons (Joey Slotnick and CJ Wilson) to chase after the girls.

So off we go, Jamie and Marian stopping off at lesbian bars (“the Butter Churn”) and making out with an entire female football team to Linda Ronstadt, while the clods plod behind them. It sounds great: a romp, a Russ Meyer B-movie revisited, a caper celebrating all-female sexuality, maybe even a new queer classic.

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So why doesn’t it work? Perhaps it is partly that, despite some grotesque violence, there is no darkness here. Jamie and Marian (who get together eventually, of course) are wholly admirable, as well as young and beautiful: an anomaly in a Coen film. The plentiful sex scenes (clear but not otherwise explicit, so as not to serve the male gaze) are unambiguously positive: ditto.

But Drive-Away Dolls just misses the beats all the time, the camera angles mannered to no purpose, slapdash in its editing, perhaps as a homage to pulp movies but nevertheless off-putting. Qualley delivers her overwritten lines in an excruciatingly exaggerated Southern accent at a rat-a-tat pace, and there is no real connection between her and Viswanathan. The whole set-up is overconfident and self-satisfied.

There are some smart lines. “You think life is an orderly series of people to beat the shit out of,” one goon sagely tells the other. The chief villain says to the girls: “Ladies, you’re a day late and dick short.” There’s an annoying dog (“Alice B Toklas”). It’s not enough. Even at 84 minutes, the film drags and palls.

So perhaps the Coen brothers need each other after all, the one too grave and bitter on his own, the other too self-indulgent and whimsical, together capable of creating films neither of them could alone. Maybe they need each other, even if they’d rather not, like Noel and Liam Gallagher, Jack and Bobby Charlton, Ed and David Miliband. The good news is that they are said to be working on another film together at last. Even better, it’s a horror story.

“Drive-Away Dolls” is in cinemas from 15 March

[See also: Dune Part 2 is pure spectacle]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul