'Drive-Away Dolls' — queer comical road trip has drive

  • by Kyle Amato
  • Tuesday February 20, 2024
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Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in 'Drive-Away Dolls'<br>(photo: Focus Features)
Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in 'Drive-Away Dolls'
(photo: Focus Features)

The film world was given a strange shock when Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen announced they'd be splitting up, each tackling their own passion projects. There seems to be no bad blood (Ethan was spotted attending the New York Film Festival premiere of "The Tragedy of Macbeth"), but the end of their partnership still feels significant.

Together they directed some of the greatest American films of all time, but what was so important to them that they'd go their separate ways? While Joel's "Macbeth" was a dramatic, black-and-white retelling of Shakespeare, Ethan has gone in the opposite direction and given us a ridiculous, breezy comedy about goofy lesbians.

"Drive-Away Dolls" (the film's true and uncensored title, "Drive-Away Dykes," does thankfully appear on-screen) is reminiscent of the gonzo "Raising Arizona" or "The Hudsucker Proxy," with an unabashedly queer sentiment. Written by Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke, "Dolls" (Focus Features) is stuffed to the brim with gags, pratfalls, and goofy plot twists. There are actual jokes, not just references or lines that sound like jokes. There's a zippiness to the entire affair, with a committed ensemble cast led by Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in 'Drive-Away Dolls'
(photo: Focus Features)  

Raucous road trip
It's almost New Year's Eve 1999, and the lesbians of Philly are restless. Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) is a buttoned-up type, shying away from excitement in favor of quiet stability. Her total opposite best friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is always chasing a thrill, even if it means getting in hot water with her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein).

One night, Jamie goes a bit too far and finds herself living on Marian's couch. She decides it's time to get out of town, and she's taking Marian with her, despite her protests. Jamie decides to take a drive-away car meant for Tallahassee, an easy way to take a cheap road trip and not worry about getting the car back. Unbeknownst to the girls, this particular car happens to contain a very valuable package.

While Jamie and Marian explore every lesbian bar down the eastern seaboard, a pair of hired goons (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) are hot on their trail, intent on delivering the briefcase to their boss (Colman Domingo). Anyone who gets in their way could meet an untimely end. Pedro Pascal also costars.

Will these goons catch up with our dykes? Will Jamie's girlfriend exact revenge? How does a senator (played by Matt Damon) factor into all this? Will Marian finally get laid? Anything could happen on the road! To spoil what's actually going on would take away from one of the funniest moments in recent queer cinema.

"Drive-Away Dolls" shows an impressive balancing act of tone. Though each character has their quirks, the jokes are never snarky or mean-spirited, allowing for moments of earned sentimentality. Each lesbian encounter feels like an homage to new queer cinema of the '90s or a new take on gay humor, not a rip-off or exploitation of the genre.

The dynamic between Jamie and Marian feels like something right out of Alison Bechtel's comic series "Dykes to Watch Out For," with a free spirit and her milquetoast pal learning why they're the way they are, and what they can do for each other.

Even when the girls discover the crime saga they've gotten wrapped up in, they never forget their sapphic mission. As always, it's just nice to have a gay movie that isn't bogged down in a coming out narrative or attempts to cater to straight people. You can and will enjoy the film if you're not queer, but a lot of the nuances might go over your head. It feels silly to talk about nuance in a film that features a dildo screwed to a kitchen wall, but I digress.

For those who mostly associate the Coen brothers with "No Country for Old Men," this film might feel totally inexplicable, but "Drive-Away Dolls" is the natural next step for one of our finest American artists. After the pandemic, who wouldn't want to blow off steam with their wife and finally direct their dream lesbian road trip picture?

'Drive-Away Dolls' screens at SF's AMC Kabuki, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and other Bay Area theaters beginning Feb. 22.

Kyle Amato is a writer living in Boston. He is a film writer and calendar editor for Boston Hassle , writing reviews for new movies and interviewing up-and-coming filmmakers. He is the creator of City on a Hill Cinema, a Boston-area repertory screening calendar. He also co-hosts Hawke Cast, a podcast about the filmography of Ethan Hawke.

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