Movie Review: Buckle up for a queer road trip caper in Ethan Coen’s spry ‘Drive-Away Dolls’

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“Drive-Away Dolls” is, technically speaking, made up of old parts.

Its script was written two decades ago, when references to Ralph Nader and Chelsea Clinton’s security detail were current. Its homages are even more vintage, with trippy transitions harkening back to the acid-soaked B-movies of the 1960s. There’s a mysterious, sought-after briefcase, odd couple thugs on the hunt for it and some innocents who find themselves unwittingly entangled in the drama. It is all very familiar, and yet, in the hands of Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke (who co-wrote), this 83-minute road trip caper feels like one of the freshest theatrical offerings of the year.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan star as Jamie and Marian, best friends and total opposites who are looking to escape their surroundings for a bit. The free-spirited, no-filter Jamie has been caught cheating on her cop girlfriend, Suki (Beanie Feldstein), and is looking for an adventure. The uptight Marian just wants a change and has decided that a better life awaits in Tallahassee, Florida. Both women are kind of cliches in the way that only works in the movies. Are they recognizable as people we know in real life? Not really. Do they make sense as friends? Also no. But they make for fun characters to play off of one another – especially Qualley as Jamie who mines every inch of her wonderfully expressive face to embody this shameless Texas lesbian with a fondness for dive bars, a ravenous sex drive and a heart of gold. She just wants to get her friend laid on their little road trip down south.

But unbeknownst to them, the drive-away car they rented for the trip (a run-down Dodge Aries that you can practically smell through the screen) contains a briefcase that some violent, dangerous people are after. Coen directed the film, his first solo narrative feature without his brother Joel Coen. The comedy and sensibilities we know so well from their shared films is still very present here, with a funny and violent start introducing the pesky silver briefcase and its owner, Santos, a short-lived but memorable Pedro Pascal.

The world of “ Drive-Away Dolls ” is full of rich smaller parts. The great Bill Camp is Curlie, the stone-faced proprietor of the junky drive-away shop who is responsible for the epic mix up. He probably has less than 20 lines of dialogue, and yet every one is a keeper. The goons are Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson, another mismatched pair who bicker about their different ways of dealing with people of interest, while trying to track down the girls for their boss: A smooth-talking Colman Domingo. Miley Cyrus and Matt Damon, an ever-reliable comedic cameo who does not disappoint here, also factor into the mix.

Its recent past setting is interesting: A time capsule that is a little clunky at times but also kind of charming – when was the last time you heard a Ralph Nader joke? It’s understandable why they kept their original period for a concept that might have evaporated with smartphones and dating apps mixed in. Their commitment to the bit is admirable, but it also might be one that needs a few more decades to settle into itself. It also makes you wonder about the Allison Anders version that never was.

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t perfect — it has a bit of a main character problem in which its heroines are regularly outshone by the razor-sharp supporting players. This is perhaps a good problem to have, all things considered. But it can also lead to an unfair impatience with the leads who are still very good but perhaps a little less fun to spend time with than the others. And even with its economical runtime, it drags a bit.

Still, it’s also one of those movies that you can imagine yourself watching (and enjoying) again, if at the very least to memorize some of its terrifically funny and quotable lines.

“Drive-Away Dolls,” a Focus Features release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content.” Running time: 83 minutes. Three stars out of four.