‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is the Campiest, Horniest Movie a Coen Brother Has Ever Made

The Coen Brothers have never exactly shied away from camp before, having gone broad and zany on Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and more, but Drive-Away Dolls is still a Looney Tunes cartoon compared even to those, let alone their more serious fare. Dolls is actually Ethan Coen’s first-ever narrative-feature directing credit without his brother and collaborator Joel Coen, and, if using it as fodder for a which-brother-did-what-all-those-years argument is your bag, you might come away assuming that Joel’s function was to be the realism governor. The teachers are gone in Drive-Away Dolls. Anvils bonk heads and Bugs Bunny does genderqueer schemes.

The fact that Joel’s first solo effort was a black-and-white Shakespeare riff (2021’s The Tragedy of MacBeth, starring Denzel Washington) makes for an intriguing, if simplistic read on their partnership. Could it really have been as easy as Cerebral Joel/Goofy Ethan all these years, like a filmmaking Lennon/McCartney? Suddenly, as if they’d planned it this way, it seems easy to split their filmography down the middle, sorting the Joel films from the Ethan films. The Hudsucker Proxy? Ethan film. Miller’s Crossing? Joel film. A Serious Man? Joel. Burn After Reading? Ethan.

In the first scene of Drive-Away Dolls, a character gets stabbed in the neck with a wine key and tries to remove it by twisting the screw, as if removing a cork. Ethan isn’t easing us into anything here; it’s more like a baptism by (camp)fire. Yet where Drive-Away Dolls is a notch dumber and goofier than just about anything a Coen has done before, that signature Coen flair for language and knack for sight gags resets the hook every time the goof-o-meter approaches not-my-cup-of-tea levels. The stakes are low, but the sense of glee is contagious.

It’s also the horniest Coen film by a mile. Margaret Qualley plays Jamie, a loquacious Texan with an accent so over-the-top it would’ve gotten her laughed off the set of Varsity Blues; it feels like Coen asked Qualley to study Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona and told her “I don’t want to see any acting more understated than this.”

Jamie is introduced eyebrows deep in a busty woman’s crotch, pausing mid-cunnilingus to field a phone call from Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, the Indian-Australian 28-year-old with breakout roles in Blockers and Bad Education.) Marian says she needs to “get away,” and wants to visit her aunt in Tallahassee. Jamie wants to tag along and suggests a “drive away”—a business model that lets you have a free road trip in exchange for helping someone transport a car. Marian agrees to meet Jamie at the local lesbian bar, where Jamie is hosting a body-shot competition that night, to discuss further.

Conservative Marian shows up to the meat market bar dressed like a Mormon typist from the fifties, while the ever-braless Jamie’s flirtatious, femme-philandering ways get her punched out onstage by her jealous girlfriend, Suki, played by Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart.) The breakup only provides further motivation for Jamie and Marian to embark upon a classic odd-couple road trip, with horndog Jamie on a side mission to break Marian out of her conservative shell and get her laid, all during a wild, woolly journey from Philadelphia to Tallahassee in 1999.

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