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‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is fast-paced with nowhere to go

When the Coen brothers decided to start making films separately, Joel Coen’s first solo film was a Shakespeare adaptation, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” in 2021.

For his first solo directing effort, Ethan Coen arrives with “Drive-Away Dolls,” a briskly paced lesbian caper comedy.

Talk about taking different paths.

“Drive-Away Dolls” is a movie that really strives for the zaniness of something like the Coens’ “Raising Arizona” but never reaches those heights.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan play Jamie and Marian, respectively, two women whose sexual orientation is one of the only things they have in common.

Jamie is out and proud, sharing every detail of her sexual escapades. Marian is more demure and repressed and stuck in a two-year-plus dry spell following a breakup with a girlfriend who works as a political operative for Ralph Nader.

Both women need a fresh start, and Jamie invites herself along for Marian’s planned trip to visit her aunt in Florida. Jamie suggests taking a “drive-away” car, taking a vehicle that needs to be delivered, and turning it into a road trip adventure.

The only problem is the car they inadvertently get has something hidden inside it, something valuable enough to kill for, and they soon are pursued down the East Coast by two thugs told to stop at nothing to get it.

The production notes say the movie “harks back to the B-movies of the late 1960s and ’70s,” but “Drive-Away Dolls” takes place in 1999, and most of the blatant cinematic reference points in the screenplay by Tricia Cooke and Coen come from that decade or at least from ’90s movies that exploited those classic tropes.

There is a metal briefcase with mysterious contents, just like “Pulp Fiction.” Unlike “Pulp Fiction,” its true contents eventually are revealed. There also is a head in a box (in this case a leather hat box), as in “Se7en.” Here’s a word of warning: those who are going to “Drive-Away Dolls” to see Pedro Pascal should make sure they arrive on time.

The dynamic between Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson as the goons pursuing Jamie and Marian echoes of the relationship between Steve Buscemi’s and Peter Stormare’s characters in the Coens’ “Fargo.” And with all of those other ’90s nods, it’s hard not to be reminded of another, more serious lesbian crime tale, “Bound.”

“Drive-Away Dolls” is less than 80-minutes long before the credits roll. I suspect there was a much longer first cut that might not be a better movie, but it would have filled in some of the plot holes. Unless I missed it, no explanation is given for keeping that severed head. And I’m not sure how the contents of that suitcase could be traced back to the person so desperate to retrieve it.

What works best is the different energies in the interplay between Qualley and Viswanathan. Characters in Coen brothers movies often speak in a cadence all their own, and Qualley’s Jamie is one of those characters. She has a madcap energy that would be too much in most films but fits the tone here perfectly.

Viswanthan’s Marian provides a nice contrast to Qualley’s flashier role. The bickering and bantering between Slotnick and Wilson also adds to the charm of the film.

“Dolls” has some big names in supporting roles. In addition to Pascal, Colman Domingo plays the goons’ boss and is far more competent than his employees. Matt Damon turns up in the second half as a conservative politician desperate to preserve his squeaky-clean image. And Miley Cyrus appears in a psychedelic dream-like sequence that is the most obvious moment inspired by ’60s B movies.

There are enough twists that “Dolls” never is dull, but in the end it feels even more slight than its abbreviated running time.

If you go …

WHAT: “Drive-Away Dolls”

STARS: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson, Colman Domingo, Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Miley Cyrus

STORYLINE: Two women are pursued by criminals when the car they drive from Philadelphia to Florida has precious cargo hidden in the trunk.

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen

RATING: Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content.

GRADE: C+

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