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A road trip to comedy hell

by Staff

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ review: A road trip to comedy hell

Johnny Oleksinski

Ethan Coen’s road-trip comedy “Drive-Away Dolls” does not have that cinematic new-car smell. 

movie review


Running time: 84 minutes Rated R (crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content). In theaters Feb. 23

No, the stale scent is closer to months-old, unfinished McDonald’s Happy Meals and inexplicably maroon stains. The creaky vehicle has racked up so many miles, it barely starts. So tired and unappetizing, this dreadful film is.

The front seats are occupied by Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Jamie (Margaret Qualley), two lesbian best friends who embark on a “drive-away” — being paid to move an automobile from one city to another — for some adventure and personal reinvention.

They’re a basic “Odd Couple.” Marian is a careful prude who totes along a copy of Henry James’ novel “The Europeans” for some light motel reading. (It’s set in 1999, so there are no smartphones yet.) Jamie, meanwhile, is an eccentric Southern partier who’s sexually free to a near-pathological degree. 

Just like in a million other films, Jamie — who’s just broken up with vengeful police officer girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) — wants to help her sensitive pal get laid. The movie is chockablock with silly sex scenes.    

The more recognizably Coen leg of the journey involves a pair of seedy criminals called the Goons (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) who pursue the women because of what’s hidden in their car. 

We learn, sigh, that the dangerous cargo in the trunk is a briefcase full of dildos.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley get more than they bargained for in “Drive-Away Dolls.” AP

That risqué visual is supposed to shock us into laughter. It does not. Instead, the effect is a sad ploy for edginess, like your middle-aged uncle rapping a Nicki Minaj song. The more we learn about the sought-after sex toys, the greater our skepticism becomes.

In the first few minutes of the film, the Goons violently kill Pedro Pascal’s “Collector” in an alley over the phallus collection. Their boss is played by Colman Domingo. Later on, we learn that it’s connected to a family-values senator named Gary Channel played by Matt Damon and his political ambitions. If you’re in the market for a fantastic, longer-than-one-minute Pedro Pascal or Matt Damon turn, you won’t find it in “Drive-Away Dolls.” 

C.J. Wilson, Colman Domingo and Joey Slotnick are in hot pursuit of a lost briefcase. ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
Pedro Pascal’s character, the Collector, is killed in the first few minutes. ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Qualley is the closest here to a standout. Her energetic personality pops, even if her over-the-top character is something out of “SpongeBob: After Dark.” Viswanathan, on the other hand, has been giving the same side-eye, dry, “I’d rather not” performance since 2018’s “Blockers.” Her consistency has begun to feel rote and clinical.

The arc of Marian and Jamie’s companionship is as predictable as Old Faithful, and the warm conclusion unearned.

“Dolls” is, of course, meant to be lighter than air. But Coen, directing without his brother and former creative partner Joel (together, “No Country For Old Men”), shows just how heavy lightness can become when not handled properly.   

Marian and Jamie’s journey is predictable from start to finish. AP

The balance between humor and crime here is way off, and the jokes are belabored. The Coen brothers’ dark comedies, such as “The Big Lebowski,” so often worked because of their confident tones. The mood here, from beginning to end, is confused and tentative. Even the edited transitions, from Coen’s wife and co-writer Tricia Cooke, are screensaver choppy.

Perhaps those corny swivels and slides are a shout-out to its Y2K-era setting. But it’s hard to believe that anything in “Drive-Away Dolls” was so well thought out.

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