Courtesy of Focus Features

February 27, 2024

‘Drive-Away D**es,’ Sibling Rivalries and Having Fun 

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“The greatest films of all time were never made… the greatest loves of all time are over now.” 

Taylor Swift’s discourse on romance tracks surprisingly well onto the recent history of the great Gen X directing duos: The last couple of years have brought about the divorces of the Safdie brothers, Wachowski sisters and — most tragically — the Coen brothers. Creative partnerships tend to be tenuous, and most historic examples (Martin and Lewis, Nichols and May, Powell and Pressburger, to name a few) end with one or both attempting to stake their own claim — or perhaps needing to after the death of one half. Still, this recent crop of breakups, and particularly the first individual projects from Joel and Ethan Coen, represent at once a great tragedy and fascinating subject for interrogation. A duo best marked for their juxtaposition of brilliant wit with bleak subject matter have split up and demonstrated that they each brought something incredibly different to their collaboration. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth brought the filmmaker’s trademark visual excellence but stripped the exercise of any humor, and the new film from Ethan Coen, Drive-Away Dolls (or D**es, as the final title card and filmmakers call it), cares about little more than getting a laugh out of its audience. One can’t help but long for days of the perfect marriage of sensibilities found in A Serious Man or Fargo, but when confronted on its own terms, you could do a lot worse than Drive-Away Dolls, a delightful romp and exciting Coen-ish twist on the burgeoning lesbian sex comedy film genre. 

Drive-Away Dolls follows two lesbian women, Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), on a “drive-away” — a type of rental car that doubles as an item delivery service — to Florida. By coincidence, they end up picking up the wrong car and find themselves embroiled in political scandal, possible murder and more. It’s a classic template: road trip romance romp with humorous diversions and a half-baked lesson learned in the end. And on those terms, it mostly works. Drive-Away Dolls is very funny, from the excellent side character duo of Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson (credited as The Goons) to the film’s Coen brothers classic punchline conclusion. Qualley, for all the limitations of her admittedly imperfect Southern accent, has an undeniable charisma, as does Viswanathan and Beanie Feldstein, playing Jamie’s ex. Colman Domingo and Matt Damon — both present in smaller roles — are as brilliant as ever, lending the film a bit more of a classic Coens’ edge. 

It’s difficult to criticize a film constantly making it clear that it isn’t to be taken too seriously. Co-written, produced and edited by Ethan Coen’s wife and long time editor Tricia Cooke, the film leans into a flashy cutting style, transitioning with bold, almost iMovie-like thuds and quakes from scene to scene. The storytelling takes a bit of a freeform structure, inserting extended scenes with a sketch-comedy-lack of forward progression and occasionally cutting back to Checkov’s abstract psychedelic scene, ominously promising a reveal that perhaps doesn’t need the window dressing of an ultra-colorized photo negative. It’s a bit messy, but it doesn’t aspire to a tight three-act structure or dense, decodable puzzle box: It’s a romp, and in that it succeeds. 

Ultimately, there’s probably something about making a film with a partner rather than a sibling that gives the whole experience a bit of a breeziness; romance can do wonders for one’s faith in humanity, while sibling rivalry tends to bring out the worst in people. Comparing the lightness to the Coens’ earlier output, there are absolutely familiar brushstrokes and structures: One can immediately find a shared screwball lineage with Intolerable Cruelty, political farce with Burn After Reading and occasional suburban perversion with A Serious Man. None of those films — frankly no other Coen Brothers film — ends with the saccharine, crowd pleasing bubbliness of Drive-Away Dolls. In that respect, for better or worse, Drive-Away Dolls stands alone.

There’s been talk of a Coen Brothers reunion, a horror film that promises to wipe away any faith in humanity instilled by Drive-Away Dolls. If it happens, it’ll inevitably have more moments of comedy than The Tragedy of Macbeth. And the breakup movies, the articulations of individuality, will take some thorny place in a fractured filmography, forever dooming the duo to separate Wikipedia pages. As a one-off, Drive-Away Dolls is better than a mere cinematic pit-stop, but I can’t help but hope it ends up amounting to little more in the center, not the end, of the Coens’ filmography  — perhaps a reclamation project for a future film Twitter generation. 

Max Fattal is a Junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].