Saturday, February 24, 2024


Now that they’ve both made a movie without the other, we know exactly what each Coen brother brought to their 40-year filmmaking partnership. Joel took the somber philosophizing, precision image-making, and stark contrasts for his Tragedy of Macbeth. Ethan took the sprightly, irreverent, and capering plotting with oddball characters and eccentric details for Drive-Away Dolls. Smash the two together and you’d get a typical high/low, light/dark, serious/sentimental, exaggerated/realist Coen collision—a Big Lebowski or Serious Man or Raising Arizona or, you get the picture. Taken separately, we have an almost scientific accounting for the exact proportions each brought to the style. It’s even there in the literary sources within—Macbeth obviously springs from the Bard, while Dolls teases Henry James. Of course that means Joel does the spare koans and quotable soliloquies, while Ethan is clearly the side-winding sentences and idiosyncratic personalities. They each have a distinctive flavor that tastes better together, but separately make for fine filmmaking all the same.

Drive-Away Dolls is the self-consciously goofy side of the Coens, here represented by an erratic Elmore Leonard looniness of a caper that’s quick, slight, silly and strange, and full of clockwork naughtiness, cheerful vulgarity, and matter-of-fact sex and nudity. It’s a backwoods road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee on the eve of Y2K in which two squabbling lesbian besties (Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan) slowly fall in love while accidentally ferrying some pretty wild contraband a few goons are desperate to retrieve. Ethan Coen, co-writing with his wife Tricia Cooke, who also serves as editor here, is out to make a small, scrappy, bisexual B-movie and does it with dashed off delight and grinning desire. Every scene stretches for a punchline, every line chewed off with cynical charm and sneakily sentimental romanticism. He shoots simply, and juggles a small ensemble for maximum snappiness, with tight closeups and terse two-shots. It flatters his loquacious low-lifes and allows for a matter-of-fact build-up of specifics, from a basement make-out party set to a Linda Ronstadt record, to the mismatched thugs who sometimes sweet talk and sometimes punch their way to information, witty pleasantries and conversational roundabouts spiked with danger. (The ultimate MacGuffin reveal is a similar shock, equal parts John Waters and Carl Hiaasen and Burn After Reading.) Each scene is the sort of snappily delivered, sleepily paced oddities that let the figures on screen fizz and pop.

It’s a movie that loves its cast in that way, indulging a certain cartoony exaggeration and gleaming naughtiness. Qualley as a confident sexual dynamo brings a swaggering Texas accent through a Bugs Bunny smirk—her mouth goes off at such an angle that she might as well be chomping a carrot. Viswanathan makes a perfect slowly seduced foil of a friend as her buttoned-up partner in accidental crime. She’s all tight and poised until she eventually unwinds with a good kiss. Their chemistry is prickly and flirty—a center of the whirling chaos and satire that’s nicely off-kilter and inevitably lovely. The rest of the cast—a who’s who of one (or few) scene wonders including Colman Domingo and Matt Damon—is game for the regular bursts of violence and vulgarity, quickly sketching their silly, flimsy types and spicing them up with just enough exaggerated style. And Coen spices up his shaggy script with psychedelic flashbacks out of Roger Corman’s The Trip, references to classic novels and outsider artists, and a beating heart of genuine romance underneath a giggling cynicism. It may not get close to the heights of a Coen classic, but it’s a shaggy good-time genre groove.

No comments:

Post a Comment