Drive-Away Dolls Review: Margaret Qualley And Geraldine Viswanathan Delight In A Sexy, Silly, But Flawed Comedy

It has its own weird style and sex-positive boldness that prevents it from ever feeling stale

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls
(Image: © Focus Features)

Working as a team, Joel and Ethan Coen have demonstrated eclectic sensibilities in their filmography, and since their last collaboration in 2018, it’s been fascinating to see how the eclecticism has been maintained in their independent pursuits. In 2021, Joel Coen made the serious, black-and-white Shakespearean adaptation The Tragedy Of Macbeth, echoing the dramatic tones and themes of No Country For Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, and Blood Simple. Now, Ethan Coen has teamed up with his wife Tricia Cooke to create Drive-Away Dolls, which has a humor and voice that will be familiar to fans of Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski.

Drive-Away Dolls

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls.

(Image credit: Focus Features)

Release Date: February 23, 2023
Directed By: Ethan Coen & Tricia Cooke
Written By: Ethan Coen & Tricia Cooke
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, and Matt Damon 
Rating: R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content
Runtime: 84 minutes

In the case of the latter, the comparison cuts both ways. The blessing is that recognition of the timing along brings a smile to ones face, and there is a phenomenal match of material and performers, as both Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan deliver some of the best work of their young careers; the curse is that the incredibly high standards will see it remembered as one of the lesser Coen comedies as a result of some third act messiness and underdeveloped antagonists. It’s has hilarious characters and silly, horny enthusiasm but also unignorable weak spots.

Co-written by Coen and Cooke, Drive-Away Dolls takes us back to the end of the year 1999 in Philadelphia where friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) both find themselves ready for major life changes. The former is suddenly homeless after her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) discovers that she is sleeping with other women, and the latter’s uptightness having reached such extremes as to render her socially incompetent. When Marian mentions that she is planning a trip to see her aunt in Tallahassee, Florida, it’s an opportunity that Jamie instantly latches on to – suggesting that they make their way south via a drive-away job (a.k.a. transporting a car to a specific destination).

The young women go to a local drive away service and quickly get a car that’s supposed to go to Tallahassee… but it’s a prime example of being at the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. The vehicle in question is supposed to be driven by a pair of goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), who can be trusted with sensitive material in a suitcase and a hatbox that are locked in the trunk, but Jamie and Marian arrive just ahead of said goons and are given the keys by mistake. As the protagonists make their way south, visiting lesbian bars, participating in basement makeout parties, and getting in trouble with the law, they’re unknowingly hunted by sinister forces who want what they don’t know they have.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan make a perfect pair in Drive-Away Dolls.

Drive-Away Dolls operates with a traditional setup, pairing a wild extrovert with neurotic introvert on a madcap road trip, but it’s the kind of movie that enforces why some cinematic traditions became traditions in the first place, and it has its own weird style and sex-positive boldness that prevents it from ever feeling stale. The film puts a lot on the shoulders of Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan, but being the exceptionally talented young performers that they are, they excel regardless.

With a high energy reminiscent of George Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a whole lot of horniness, Qualley in particular gets a special comedic showcase with Drive-Away Dolls, and it’s an onslaught of unbridled charisma. Jamie isn’t the brightest bulb, she has selfish tendencies (her very first scene features her cheating on her girlfriend, after all), but her confidence and self-assuredness generates a magnetism that is not only enchanting for movie-goers but also wordlessly explains why Marian is drawn to her despite being her emotional opposite. Whether Jamie is speechifying while on the road or going buck wild in bed, Qualley clearly loves every minute playing the character, and the fun she is having makes her incredibly fun to watch.

Marian is the film’s straight man (admittedly a particularly ill-fitting stock character title in this movie’s case), but she is far from just a comedic target, and Viswanathan is hilarious in her own right. Her special brand of bristly is instantly apparent in her introduction – chiding a co-worker for saying “anyhoo” moments before scolding him for judging her own use of the word “engagement” – and it’s delightful to see her start coming out of her shell thanks to her best friend’s influence.

There is a wonderful, trippy style in play, and it’s never afraid to get super silly.

Drive-Away Dolls is sexy fun that riffs on exploitation movies without itself being exploitative, and it reinforces its tone with silly and psychedelic style. A variety of wipes provide goofy punctuation to the adventure, and while trippy interludes full of hallucinatory visuals and DayGlo colors seem random when they first start appearing, it all ends up tying into the story in weird and unexpected fashion. There is a level of incongruity between visuals explicitly reminiscent of the 1960s and the 1990s setting (which admittedly never pops in any significant way), but the movie is ultimately able to fold everything together.

Drive-Away Dolls has villain issues, but they don’t derail the entire film.

But while key aesthetic choices ultimately work in Drive-Away Dolls, the plot doesn’t come together quite as cleanly. There is a smart and sharp setup and a payoff to the hatbox/suitcase mystery that is surprising and satisfying, but the villain side of the adventure is surprisingly undercooked. Beyond successfully providing a sinister presence, 2024 Oscar nominee Colman Domingo gets very little to do as he mostly plays on the outskirts of the story, and though goons are usually a Coen specialty (see: Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and Burn After Reading), the bickering between Joey Slotnick’s passive Arliss and C.J. Wilson’s aggressive Flint never properly clicks – and this proves unfortunate, as the movie hangs on their dynamic to a certain degree, and the lack of clicking results in a shockingly dissatisfying conclusion to their arc. The film is able to maintain stakes because the audience cares about the protagonists and the larger mystery is compelling, but the issues hold it back from being great, and it’s instead simply good.

Drive-Away Dolls feels like a movie that is one or two screenplay drafts away from being the best possible version of itself, but as is, it’s still a trip. The pairing of Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan is enough reason alone to check it out, and though it’s not an instant classic, it seems destined to at least achieve cult status, and any fan of Coen comedies will find something to savor in Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke’s collaboration.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.