Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Fans of Ethan Coen can reliably predict his nonconformist approach in subject and style to his unique, memorable creations. That knowledge certainly informs his latest, “Drive-Away Dolls,” co-written with Tricia Cooke, Ethan’s wife. According to this month’s “American Cinematographer,” Coen says he fully intended to make a low-budget “trashy movie.” He succeeds stylistically and thematically in this disjointed road adventure.

It’s 1999 in Philadelphia as Jamie and Marian gear up for their drive-away adventure to Tallahassee, Florida, that is, transporting a car that drivers get paid to deliver. The story begins with and is teeming throughout with lesbian lovemaking, though the camera discreetly avoids ogling the women’s bodies. On the trip Jamie and Marian clash over Jamie’s gung-ho inclination for sex with just about any willing participant. In fact, Marian and Jamie’s “friendship” lacks any warm camaraderie, their friction in the service of engaging drama.

Neither at first knows about a mysterious suitcase and, in due course, a startling container with dry ice in the trunk. For those treasures, two incompetent goons pursue them, their dialogue the funniest of the film. Throw in a yappy dog, bars, several bewildering hallucinogenic flights of fancy, plus spirited, contrasting performance styles by Margaret Qualley as Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner describes emphasizing oversaturated kaleidoscopic and neon lighting to establish unique signatures for cars, bars, motels, hotels, rec rooms, alleys, and, in fact, every location. In addition, obvious camera movements call attention to this artificial world as do sound effects and music choices, all enhancing the offbeat, unpredictable comedy. As expected, Coen also spoofs exaggerated, cartoon violence, quite restrained here by his standards, remember “Fargo’s” woodchipper? Each character conveys an idiosyncratic character, making the film’s appeal uneven but pleasantly unpretentious. “Drive-Away Dolls” races by in a quick eighty-four minutes and is at theaters.

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