The Forced Erotic Whimsy of “Drive-Away Dolls”

The new film directed by Ethan Coen, “Drive-Away Dolls,” is set in 1999. This makes sense, given that he and his wife, Tricia Cooke, wrote the script around that time. But what’s at stake in the date, which turns the movie into a period piece, is more than fashion and needle drops; the story, which is one of pursuit on the open road, would be rendered utterly implausible by today’s technology. It’s a period piece or nothing, but Coen—despite having, with his brother Joel, made some of the most wittily discerning modern movies about the American past—doesn’t seem to have much to say about 1999. The result is a mere yarn that, lacking any sense of meaningful retrospect at a quarter century’s distance, remains untethered at either end of its time line and merely goes slack.

The action begins in Philadelphia, where the free-spirited, fun-loving Jamie (Margaret Qualley), cracking wise (“Why not 2K?”) in a Southern accent thick enough to break a tooth on, is caught cheating by her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), a police officer, who throws her out of their apartment (and tearfully unscrews the wall dildo that Jamie had given her). Jamie takes refuge with another friend, Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who is in need of a change of scenery and planning to visit an aunt in Tallahassee. Jamie suggests that they go together and that, to reduce their costs to basically zero, they go in a drive-away, which is like a rental car but paid for by bartered labor—namely, that of driving the car and its cargo to a specific destination. They find a grubby dealership where the clerk, Curlie (Bill Camp), a bitter and life-worn character seemingly parodied from the pages of a David Goodis novel, happens to have a car with a case in its trunk, both of which are expected in Tallahassee.

But there’s been a mixup. The car should have been picked up by a pair of loopy crooks, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C. J. Wilson), and the case in the trunk is one for which a man has been killed (by a waiter who stabs him with a corkscrew to the neck). When the men learn that the car has already gone, their boss (Colman Domingo) orders them to go after Marian and Jamie, get hold of the cargo, and make the delivery. This is why we have to be in 1999. Put a tracking device in that car and equip the crooks, who spend more time bickering than crooking, with cell phones, and the car would be found so quickly that “Drive-Away Dolls” would be a short.

Yet this hypothetical truncated update wouldn’t necessarily be worse than the one that’s actually screening. Despite the comedically gore-spattered menace that shadows Marian and Jamie on their journey, “Drive-Away Dolls” is essentially a relationship movie. The uninhibited Jamie urges the orderly Marian to stop fretting about their delivery deadline and make a fun road trip of their journey, with detours to lesbian bars along the way and a stopover at a house party of female college athletes. While Jamie’s stated purpose is to get the long-celibate Marian laid, it’s as clear as it would be in any nineteen-thirties screwball comedy that these platonic opposites are made for each other, and it only takes a metronomic series of self-consciously wacky adventures and narrow escapes for them to figure this out. Jamie picks up a woman and brings her back to a motel room; Marian, avoiding a threesome, sits in the cramped and grimy motel lobby and reads Henry James’s “The Europeans.” An arrest proves inconsequential; a capture proves to be a red herring. The case that needs to be delivered is a takeoff on the apocalyptic nuclear MacGuffin of “Kiss Me Deadly” (there, it’s hot; in “Drive-Away Dolls,” it’s cold). Without too much of a spoiler, body parts, real and simulated, are involved, and the movie builds up to a line that’s as catchy as it is empty: “You’re a day late and a dick short.”

The dynamic between the two pursuers is elaborated more sharply than that of the pursued. Arliss, a self-styled sophisticate, reproaches his partner for his crude methods, for his lack of people skills: “You think that life is an orderly series of people to beat the shit out of.” With a sardonic echo of pulp fiction’s earnest core, something to which the Coen sensibility is preternaturally attuned, the movie’s purest moment of pathos is given to Curlie, the woefully trapped and grievously disposable middleman. A fuller purpose emerges, before being tossed breezily away, only by way of a candidate for high office (Matt Damon, in a brightly lit but nuance-free cameo) who has something to cover up, winking at a tale of hypocrisy and abuse of power, of small-scale crime as a tiny tentacle of high-level politics.

As for the relationship on which the movie is built, it barely merits the designation. Two rode together, but who they are remains as vague at the end as at the beginning—just a set of traits that give rise to antics, sexual and otherwise. The lead actresses, among the most distinctive of their generation, are plugged into the film but given little but mannerisms to perform. Qualley’s dramatic aura (as brought to life by Claire Denis in “Stars at Noon”) never emerges from behind the movie’s forced and febrile comedy; Viswanathan, a sharply gifted comic actor, is given little to do but look fretful. Marian and Jamie discover, at long last, what passes (at a blandly explicit level) for erotic compatibility, or at least mutual tolerance and accommodation, but the drama preceding this discovery offers little resistance in the first place. Whatever may inflect the personalities of Marian and Jamie, whatever their backgrounds and interests, whatever they might talk about, they don’t talk about, because the details of their characters are driven away by the plethora of plot details. The truncated version, in an era of tracking devices, is a movie just waiting to be filled by what lives are made of. ♦

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