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Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian and Margaret Qualley as Jamie in director Ethan Coen's Drive-Away Dolls.Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features/Focus Features

  • Drive-Away Dolls
  • Directed by Ethan Coen
  • Written by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke
  • Starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan and Colman Domingo
  • Classification 14A; 84 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Feb. 23

A lascivious comedy that might have been produced by The Big Lebowski’s fictional pornographer Jackie Treehorn were he given far too much money, Drive-Away Dolls proves that there is a yawning gap between “a Coen Brothers film” and a “film by a Coen brother.”

Working without his older brother Joel for the second time – the first solo effort being the 2022 doc Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind – Ethan Coen’s queer crime caper bears all the elements of a classic Coen Bros. pic, but with the cynicism sanded off and the wackiness dialled up. The production, co-written and edited by Ethan’s wife Tricia Cooke, is nothing if not consistently fascinating, but mostly as a messy cinephile guessing game. Forget about what Jesus – either Christ or John Turturro’s Big Lebowski bowler – might do. The real question of Drive-Away Dolls is: What would Joel do?

Aside from deciding instead to make an (excellent) Shakespeare movie, it’s doubtful the elder Coen would have tolerated as many star-wipe scene transitions and myriad other goofy editing touches in Drive-Away Dolls, all of which underline Ethan and Tricia’s misguided commitment to the bit. There is a fine line between endearing, breezy silliness and second-hand embarrassment, a border that the undercooked film crosses back and forth over and over again until there’s no space left for your eyes to roll.

The vibes are off right from the start, when the film stages a back-alley double-cross featuring a Pedro Pascal cameo that starts shaky and ends with the film one misstep away from wobbling into a faux-satirical Not Another Coen Brothers Movie stupor. Things don’t improve once the story’s lead characters are introduced, the impulsive Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and her straighter-edged friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). Between hitting up lesbian bars and dealing with the emotional fallout of Jamie’s latest breakup, the two accidentally find themselves in possession of the most mysterious briefcase this side of Pulp Fiction (or maybe it’s Fargo?). Quickly, a bunch of tough guys (including Colman Domingo’s smooth operator) are hot on their tail.

And so begins a road-trip crime comedy that cracks instead of crackles. Almost nothing here works, despite Coen and Cooke’s fervent belief that they’re cooking with sexy same-sex gas. Jamie and Marian are odd-couple friends whose unbelievable relationship is exacerbated by Qualley and Viswanathan’s intense anti-chemistry, with the former adopting a grating Tommy Lee Jones-esque accent that will turn even the most patient moviegoer into Anton Chigurh.

The ultra-quirky gangster antics are criminally stale, as if resurrected from a deservedly long-lost first treatment of Raising Arizona. And the big briefcase mystery climaxes on a flaccid reveal that hints at what must be Joel’s stabilizing force when it comes to the siblings’ arrested-development juvenilia. The great gag behind Lebowski’s Jackie Treehorn might have involved a penis joke, but it was a penis joke with tumescent flair.

Already, there is a sense that Drive-Away Dolls (whose original title Drive-Away Dykes more accurately reveals its sensibilities) will be claimed as a new queer cult classic. And there is a decent case to be made on the representation front, given the film’s so-what attitude when it comes to Jamie and Marian’s sexuality, and the fact that Cooke herself identifies as a lesbian, calling her 30-year marriage to Coen “unconventional.”

But good intentions and a progressive lens cannot overcome a slippery delivery. And as any admirer of the Coen Brothers (plural) knows, execution is everything.

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