"We Didn't Deserve...this Commodification."
It's been a few years since the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, made a film—the last one was the western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (and Other Tales of the Western Frontier) back in 2018. That was for Netflix, and one wondered if they were tired of the business grind of securing funding and distribution deals developing theater-ready product. Buster Scruggs was episodic and eclectic, and it felt a bit like the Coen Brothers' version of The White Album, showing their strengths, but also their divisions, which seemed invisible in their one movie-one story efforts.
The Wisdom of the Tribe (although one hates to credit any Entertainment Press with "wisdom") had always been that Ethan wrote and Joel directed, but the two contributed to each others' jobs so much that there was no clear demarcation line about who did what. They even shared editing duties (using the name "Roderick Jaynes" as a mutual nom de tranche).
So, it was a bit sad to hear that they were going to have a trial separation; one doesn't take this talk too seriously—how many times has Soderbergh quit and how many "last films" has Quentin Tarantino made? But, it seemed like the Coens meant it. Joel made a stark version of The Tragedy of MacBeth--that emphasized stagey minimal sets and maximum shadows, the better to appreciate the performances, especially of Denzel Washington and his wife, Frances McDormand. For his part, Ethan Coen hunkered down with his wife Tricia Cooke to produce a documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.* Now, they've made a film of a script the two had written 1999, Joel directing and Tricia editing.
Drive-Away Dolls—or as its titled in the movie, Henry James' Drive-Away Dykes—is basically, a road movie with serio-comic violence. It tells the tale of a Mutt-and-Jeff lesbian duo—uptight, repressed Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) and free-spirit Jamie (Margaret Qualley)—who take a break from their normal lives and relationship break-ups and the up-coming turn of the millennium ("Y Not 2k?") to go birding in Tallahassee. That's the original idea, although Jamie road-maps it out to visit every dyke bar en route. Then, there's the mode of transportation: they use a drive-away service, which gives them a car for a one-way trip as long as they deliver it to the destination on time.
Sounds great. But, the guy at the service gives them the wrong car. After they drive off, "Chief" (Colman Domingo) shows up with two goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson) looking for it, and upon hearing that it's gone telephones his boss for instructions. Those turn out to be "beat up the service guy and find those girls," which would be easy if Jamie hadn't mapped out such a circuitous route from Philadelphia to Florida. So, while Arliss and Flint begin investigating several wild goose chases (and coming out the worse for it), Jamie and Marian take their meandering time and, inevitably, don't show up at the agreed-drop-off point on-time.Perhaps if they knew what was in the trunk of the car they're driving they'd be a little more responsible (well, Marian, anyway), but a blow-out along the way forces them to look for a spare and what do they find?Well, I ain't sayin' (so no spoilers here), but it's a member in the long line of McGuffins and Whats-its in movies from Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man and Pulp Fiction (well, the last two filching it directly from Kiss Me Deadly) and we've already seen one guy (Pedro Pascal) get killed for it in a prologue at the beginning of the film. And it's what Arliss and Flint and Chief and the guy on the other end of the phone are after and they'll do anything to get it back. Thus, intrigue, threat of danger, and mystery.But, really, not really. Just from my description you can tell that Drive-Away Dolls hallmarks quite a few Coen Brothers traits—the contrasty duos (but without Steve Buscemi, this time!), the ginned-up danger, the what's-it-all-mean empty space that's supposed to be wrapped up tidily at the end. Except for the lesbian angle, it's a little bit rote, and more-than-a-bit familiar while still striving be be out-RAGE-ous...think along the lines of past Coens like Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty, or even The Ladykillers, where there's something about it that just doesn't gel, although you know they're throwing everything but Joel's kitchen sink at it.
And that may be the issue. There's a formality to Joel Coen's direction that just isn't here—a rigor amidst the dishevelment—that cements things into a cohesive package that feels of a piece. Brother Ethan just ratchets up the lampoonery as if he was trying to goose the material with false energy. Compound it with Cooke's editing whimsy with some graphic transitions that are a bit too Tarantino-cute on top of it all. It doesn't pay off. And there's maybe a couple flash-backs too many, although the out-of-left-field psychedelic sequences (with cameos by Miley Cyrus) associated with the contraband aluminum suitcase ultimately seem more essential the more one thinks about it.It sure tries hard (and the actors, which also include Beanie Feldstein and Matt Damon, give above and beyond, with Qualley and Viswanathan the stand-outs as the fast-talking and the dead-panning hub around which everyone revolves) but Drive-Away Dolls, even with its pedal to the metal, never quite achieves the anarchic spirit it so desperately wants to convey.
The word is that the Brothers are re-uniting to make a horror movie. I get shivers just thinking about it.
* I've seen it, but won't write about it much. It consists of archival footage of Lewis performances and interviews, edited by Cooke in a fairly tight summation of his life and career. But, interestingly, it has little editorial point of view, other to note at the end that Lewis lived longer than his musical peers, two of his kids, and a couple of his seven ex-wives...and that, he was a self-taught piano player...even re-teaching himself after a 2019 stroke. Amazing, given his instinctual, visceral keyboarding.