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Drive-Away Dolls is a half-baked comedy from Ethan Coen

Like a legendary rock band, The Coen Brothers have reached the period where they are pursuing solo projects. Joel hit the ground running, making the remarkable Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021 with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. His brother Ethan has been focusing on theatre, although he did direct a documentary on Jerry Lee Lewis in 2022. This week, he releases his first narrative feature without his brother, comedy Drive-Away Dolls.

Set in 1999, Margaret Qualley plays Jamie, a gay woman whose promiscuity proves too much for girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), who throws her out. She inserts herself into a road trip to Florida planned by her straight laced friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), but their odd couple adventures turn deadly when they accidentally hire a car meant to be driven by criminals, with some dangerous cargo in the trunk.

Written by Coen and wife Trivia Cooke, the film has all the hallmarks of earlier Coen Brothers work. There’s quickfire dialogue, regular people getting involved in capers, and criminals with idiosyncrasies. The problem is, it feels too much like a Coen Brothers film, as if the director were turning in old homework with a few words changed. The portrayal of queer culture feels cartoonish, and the sex scenes have a voyeuristic quality to them that feels more suited to something like American Pie. Whereas Joel took the duo’s sensibilities and mixed it with other influences for Macbeth, here Ethan seems to be repeating himself creatively.

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Qualley carries the film, adopting a Holly Hunter-style Southern accent as she charms her way into the bedrooms of women across the country. She delivers the script with confidence, giving energy to Viswanathan’s hesitant performance.

In 2021, regular Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell claimed in an interview that “Ethan just didn’t want to make movies anymore”. If that is the case, then it’s hard to imagine why Drive-Away Dolls was the story that brought him back. Amusing in places, it would be something to build on for a first time director, but from an Oscar winning veteran this is decidedly half baked.