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‘Drive-Away Dolls’: One trippy time capsule

Jack Travis

The Coen brothers are a recognizable brand in Hollywood. They’re the directors behind cult classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In the last few years, the brothers have taken on solo projects, with Joel Coen directing Apple TV+’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. And now Ethan Coen has a new movie out called Drive-Away Dolls.

The film is a trippy time capsule of screwball comedy mixed with queer love and quirky characters, with the latter being something Coen fans look for in all their movies.

Set in 1999, this road trip comedy follows two women, Margaret Qualley as Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian, who decide to make an impromptu trip to Tallahassee. Jamie just had a messy breakup with her girlfriend, and Marian wants to visit her aunt.

Jamie convinces Marian to join her on a car transport job where a vehicle needs to be delivered to a set location, and they drive it there. Before long, the girls are packed and depart Pittsburgh and start their journey to Florida. Along the way, Marian reveals she hasn’t had intimate encounters with any women in three years, and Jamie makes it her mission to find Marian a nice girl to hook up with on their trip.

Little do they know, the company that gave Jamie and Marian their car had a little mixup. They were given the wrong vehicle, which was supposed to be held for a group of criminals looking for a briefcase hidden in its trunk.

Realizing these girls have their briefcase, a pair of goons (Joey Slotnick as Arliss and C. J. Wilson as Flint) are sent after them to retrieve it. This begins a cross-country chase where Jamie and Marian are unknowingly one step ahead of their clumsy criminal pursuers.

Drive-Away Dolls slowly expands into a mystery that is truly bonkers when its full scope is revealed over the course of this layered narrative. Some of the psychedelic visuals last a little too long, but the film feels like an authentic late ‘90s experience with multiple scenes of route planning over paper maps, Rolodexes, landline phones, and more.

Tricia Cooke, Director Ethan Coen’s wife and a frequent Coen brothers collaborator, delivers wild edits to the film with unique scene transitions that lend this time capsule a stylized identity. All of this gives Drive-Away Dolls a credible retro vibe that tackles lesbian identities, gay bar culture, and the challenges of managing a queer relationship at a time when gay marriage was still more than a decade from being legalized across the U.S.

Drive-Away Dolls is an explicit film that doesn’t shy away from sex or nudity. It’s unapologetically queer with Qualley and Viswanathan delivering unmatched chemistry that brings their surprisingly tender love front and center.

To top it all off, this is a film that doesn’t overstay its welcome, rolling the credits after a breezy one hour and 24 minutes. With movies more frequently pushing closer to three hours when they have no business carrying such a bloated runtime, it’s refreshing to see a story say what it needs to and then quickly shuffle off the stage.

 Some diehard Coen fans who can quote Raising Arizona or No Country for Old Men in their sleep may find Ethan Coen’s latest offering to be a little lacking compared to earlier cinematic outings, but it’s still a film of great quality worth seeing in theaters.

 Though some Arkansans may not see it this way, there’s almost a Charles Portis quality to the story of this film, as if Norwood were rated R and starred a pair of lesbians. It is not a family film by any means, but those who enjoy a callback to the exploitation movies of years gone by will undoubtedly find a great many things to enjoy in Drive-Away Dolls.

 And for lesbians who want to see themselves in more movies going forward, Drive-Away Dolls is required viewing. Hollywood won’t invest in queer movies if they don’t make money.

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Courtney Lanning is a film critic who appears weekly on <i>Ozarks At Large</i> to discuss the latest in movies.
Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
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