Drive-Away Dolls review: A sweet, absurd lesbian odyssey from writer Tricia Cooke and half of the Coen brothers

Drive-Away Dolls review: A sweet, absurd lesbian odyssey from writer Tricia Cooke and half of the Coen brothers

The Coen Brothers are a near-perfect cinematic equation. Having temporarily disbanded (though rumours suggest they’re already working on a new collaboration), Joel went away to make The Tragedy of Macbeth, a portentous, brutalist Shakespeare adaptation. Ethan, meanwhile, has delivered Drive-Away Dolls – a hypodermic needle shot of absurdity. Stitch the pair together, and you’d probably end up with the kind of farcical melancholy that’s become the Coen trademark, delivered in various doses across the likes of Raising Arizona, A Serious Man, and Burn After Reading.

With only one brother in the driver’s seat, this is a sex comedy with the consciously artificial, smart-dumb patter of an old Steve Martin movie. Yet, ushered in alongside is Coen’s partner and longtime collaborator Tricia Cooke – who serves as editor, co-writer, and unofficial co-director – leading to it also being a Nineties-set, enthusiastically horny but also quite tender queering of the crime capers that made the Coens’ name (Cooke identifies as lesbian and queer, and both Cooke and Coen have partners outside of their marriage).

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) share a familiar dynamic. Jamie has a hard-bitten Texan accent and a wild look in her eye. She’s a sexual buccaneer, with an enraged and cheated-on cop girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein) who thinks they should “put her p***y on a meter and we could all retire”. Marian’s the conservative (sexually, not politically) type, who still craves the same sort of sweet-natured revelation she experienced as a little girl, bouncing up and down on her trampoline so she could catch her neighbour sunbathing in the nude, a pair of red cowboy boots rested against her deck chair.

After they both realise they’ve hit the romantic brick wall, the duo decide to drive down to Tallahassee, Florida, by means of a “drive-away” job – in which they pick up and then deliver a vehicle to their destination. Little do they know, someone’s left an awfully suspicious briefcase in the trunk, with three crooks (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, and CJ Wilson) hot on its trail.

There’s a balance of tone in Drive-Away Dolls that’s neatly encapsulated by its run of references to novelist Henry James, whose dense prose Jamie describes as “like someone dragging day-old spaghetti across my tits”. Yet the film pauses, too, while Marian reads the final lines of The Europeans, in which an outsider attempting to puncture strict New England society is forced to retreat, defeated. Tears well up in her eyes. Something about that tale of impossibility has touched her deeply.

Joyride: Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ (Focus Features)
Joyride: Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ (Focus Features)

Drive-Away Dolls wears its levity with pride, with cartoonish transitions and interludes where an Anubis-headed Miley Cyrus dances inside a lava lamp-patterned hallucination. Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon appear in brief roles. Alongside Domingo, they screw up their features and play it big, all three of them willing and eager clowns.

This was a script originally written around two decades ago, and draws directly from Cooke’s experiences of the New York lesbian scene. And there’s a slight but palpable tension in Jamie and Marian’s various interactions with men. They’re quick to assert their identities, not only because they love themselves (and other women), but because it’s a way to move through the world on the offensive, never caught out when it comes to their safety in a new situation. Add to that, this might be the first film with a breakup scene that involves unscrewing a dildo from the wall through wracked sobs. Talk about range.

Dir: Ethan Coen. Starring: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Matt Damon. 15, 84 minutes.

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is in cinemas from 15 March