A Cock and Bull Story — Drive-Away Dolls

William J Hammon
7 min readFeb 25, 2024

The Coen Brothers are among the greatest auteurs in cinema. Their blunt, tragicomic style is second to none in the industry, and while their movies don’t always work, they are always intriguing, exploring the underbelly of society in fun and unique ways that are genuinely human. They can be a bit self-serving at times (just look at Hail, Caesar! for a prime example), but more often than not, their style resonates with audiences and gives us something to think about while having some great dark laughs.

Together, they’re a powerhouse, but we don’t really have much of a sample size for them as individuals. Joel has only directed one feature solo thus far (The Tragedy of Macbeth, which was excellent), and Ethan has only directed a documentary on Jerry Lee Lewis until now. Pairing with his wife Tricia Cooke on the script, Ethan has given us Drive-Away Dolls, an homage to road trip movies that wears its references on its sleeve (the MacGuffin is literally a Pulp Fiction-esque briefcase), and has a really great sense of humor, carried by an able ensemble cast. The story and characterization, however, leave us wanting.

Set in 1999, the film throws you right into the action with a nervous man named Santos (Pedro Pascal) waiting in a Philadelphia bar, clutching an attaché case to his chest as he waits for a meeting with some unknown contact. When that person doesn’t show, he flees, eventually getting trapped in an alley, where he is hilariously murdered in a way that Pascal might consider cliché given how he went out on Game of Thrones. We then cut to an apartment where there’s some hot lesbian action going on, telling us that no matter what we do in this film, it will be box-centric.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is cheating on her girlfriend, police officer Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), and is having her tryst interrupted by phone calls from her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who is awkwardly trying to decide if she’s going to go out with the girls tonight, all while fighting off the advances of co-workers and correcting their grammar. The Odd Couple dynamic is firmly established. Jamie is a hedonist who only cares about getting laid as much as possible, while Marian is much more buttoned up and opts for propriety, relationships, and chemistry.

This dichotomy is all well and good — and to their credit Qualley and Viswanathan sell it for all it’s worth — but there are two things instantly that raise red flags for me. The first is Qualley’s voice. For whatever reason, the script decides that she’s from Texas, and so she’s given the most grating Southern accent imaginable. There’s nothing plot-related about it. She’s just got a yokel voice. There’s not even a cheeky joke about shoving her face into a vagina just to shut her up. It’s just there.

The second, and more crucial error, is that while we can rest assured that the two will come to an understanding, as well as a romantic coupling (part of the movie’s charm is in how easily it just lets the audience laugh at the tropes and stereotypes without judgment), we’re given no indication as to what made these diametrically opposed personalities become such great friends. They say they’re besties, but nothing about them indicates that they would be. It’s one thing to have some differences of opinion and behavior, but they’re on completely different ends of the spectrum. No one would believe they have any basis for a rapport other than their sexual orientation (we get fantasy flashbacks of Marian’s sexual awakening where she watches a nude sunbathing neighbor played by Savanna Ziegler that’s reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but nothing for Jamie). Both actresses give great performances, but the basic character beats laid out just don’t mesh. It’s fine if you establish some common dynamics, like in Clerks, Superbad, or Booksmart, to show that the pair is inseparable despite having these vastly different perspectives. This film just doesn’t do that, and asks us to take a lot at face value.

Anyway, when Jamie’s caught by Sukie, they break up and Jamie’s kicked out of their shared apartment. With nowhere to go, she crashes with Marian, who has decided to take a leave from her job and visit an aunt in Florida (Connie Jackson) in order to decompress. Jamie suggests that she tag along, as they can get a rental car for free if they use a “Drive-Away” service, which is a one-way road trip to deliver a vehicle to a distant location, in this case Tallahassee (lesbians willingly traveling to Florida is probably a night terror for Ron DeSantis). They turn up at a nearby office, where the proprietor, Curlie (Bill Camp), has just been commissioned by pure coincidence (I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but this is some bullshit right here) to have someone pick up a car heading for that exact city. Thinking nothing of it — there’s a running gag about why anyone would want to go to Tallahassee, much less multiple parties — he gives the girls the car, and is stunned by the arrival of a man known simply as Chief (Colman Domingo) and his two enforcers, Arliss and Flint (Joey Slotnick and C. J. Wilson, respectively), coming to collect said car.

Reporting the news to his furious boss (Matt Damon), Chief promises to track the girls down and retrieve the case, which just happens to be in the trunk of the car. As Jamie and Marian drive down the Atlantic coast, they become increasingly aware of their part in a criminal scheme that reaches the highest levels, all while taking several diversions purely for the sake of Jamie’s libido.

Some of the antics in this movie are downright hilarious. The sexual exploits are ridiculously over the top in a really fun way (I never thought a dildo could be used as foreshadowing before), there’s an excellent bit about Curlie’s fate that I wish went even further than it did, and the incorporation of Henry James novels into the mix is a nice intellectual touch. There’s also a really clever use of mirrored scenes, where Jamie and Marian have an argument, and then we cut to Arliss and Flint basically having the same fight. This device even carries over into the film’s climax in a well-executed manner.

But there are also parts that fall utterly flat. Sukie ignores her own police duties and bails on an investigation just to spite Jamie after their breakup. Miley Cyrus cameos in a series of psychedelic cutaways that eventually give context to the story, but in no way match the tone (I don’t get why you would flash back to the 60s in a film set in the 90s; it’s already a throwback), and ultimately just feel shoehorned so we can have a scene where she simulates a handjob. The editing is all over the map, with concurrent scenes taking place both in daylight and nighttime, as if Coen and Cooke didn’t bother to actually map out a timeline for the movie, even though a missed deadline is a major plot point. There are a lot of fantastic jokes and images in this quasi redux of Burn After Reading, but there’s far too much focus on the “what” of the moment, rather than the “how” and “why.”

For example, it feels like there were only two reasons to set the movie in 1999. The first is that it’s before the era of mobile phone ubiquity, so we can create a scenario where the girls accidentally absconding with the car and the case can’t just be solved by a quick cell call. The second is so that Jamie can be confrontational about her sexuality with basically every man she encounters in the American South, even though none of them judges her, and again, we have no context for such behavior. She seems to want to make them uncomfortable, but it’s 1999, not 1959. Just because gays couldn’t marry yet (there’s a late punchline on this point that’s inaccurate by about five years) didn’t mean that every Southerner was a raging homophobe. There had been enough exposure for the average person to at least be tolerant if not accepting of being out, loud, and proud. Maybe if this had any bearing on the plot it would have been worth something, but literally no one even reacts to Jamie’s exuberant habits, and Marian never really calls her out on it as if she wants to remain closeted, so what’s the point? It’s funny the first time, sure, but the 10th? Now we’re just spinning our wheels.

All that said, this movie does eventually stick the landing. Qualley and Viswanathan carry the comedy brilliantly, helping the film over the finish line in its weaker moments, while Domingo, Slotnick, Feldstein, and Damon all have a handful of inspired bits. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the picture leans too heavily on its influences, to the point where it’s almost a derivative pastiche, but when it’s all said and done, we get where we need to go, not unlike a delayed orgasm. You just have to dive in there and keep going until you push the button in the exact right way.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think the Coens should make more solo projects? Do you buy friendships between such different characters? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on February 25, 2024.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com