★★★★

Since the Coen brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) decided to end their long-running partnership, Ethan Coen’s only directorial work has been a single documentary on Jerry Lee Lewis. With Drive-Away Dolls, he returns to features with the help of his wife and co-writer, Tricia Cooke. For any fans who enjoyed Joel Coen’s solo debut with 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth yet noted a discernible variation from the brothers’ collaborative style, Drive-Away Dolls may feel like something of a return to form.

The action centers on Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), an Odd Couple duo who inadvertently wind up in possession of a criminal’s briefcase while on a road trip to Florida. They also wind up in possession of a decapitated head (Pedro Pascal), a detail which remarkably pales in strangeness to the ultimate reveal of the briefcase’s contents. In true Coen fashion, this setup leads to a string of criminal schemes, quirky character moments, and a surprisingly intricate plot revolving directly around Matt Damon’s genitals. To put it succinctly, it’s the sort of truly Coen-style narrative that can’t be adequately explained without simply experiencing the film in its entirety.

As is Coen tradition, the oddball nature of the plot works largely due to the stellar performances of the cast. On paper, Jamie and Marian differ in predictably archetypal ways. Jamie is the fun-loving adventurer, while Marian is a reserved young woman with little experience in the world outside her comfort zone. What truly makes the pairing work, however, is not found in the blanket descriptions of their characters but rather the nuances of their onscreen chemistry. At every beat, the subtleties of their facial reactions and body language differ with such distinction that even a viewer with incurable face-blindness would have no problem differentiating one woman from the other. Yet despite their countless differences, they never once fail to share their scenes convincingly as a couple.

Apart from the main duo, the cast is rounded out with a handful of likewise solid performances. Colman Domingo and Damon particularly shine as two of the film’s antagonists, while Beanie Feldstein proves well-suited for putting the usual Coen spin on the obligatory cop character typically found in less gonzo crime comedies. Miley Cyrus also makes a beautifully memorable cameo as a real-life-inspired character who shares a bizarre connection with the film’s MacGuffin—and, by association, Damon’s genitals.

Putting aside the tongue-in-cheek tone this movie so easily merits, Drive-Away Dolls is about more than bizarre crime plots and quirky character moments. Typical of most buddy trip movies, each of the film’s characters dives further into their own personal journey of discovery with every mile of ground they cover.

This can be where the film falls just shy of interesting. Marian’s journey toward overcoming her introversion while simultaneously pushing her sexual boundaries is written and portrayed well enough, but she doesn’t bring much new to the table compared with other characters who’ve followed the same thread in the years since mainstream Hollywood began pushing for wider acceptance of queer protagonists. At times, it feels as if her chemistry with the endlessly lovable Jamie is the only thing rendering this aspect of the story just a few ticks above average.

Meanwhile, viewers may find themselves questioning at various points whether Jamie is truly lovable by the strength of anything but Qualley’s performance. Her character arc begins with an act of infidelity, and her devil-may-care attitude sometimes calls into question whether she has much interest in long-term growth. Nonetheless, it’s hard to hear Qualley speak a single line in her molasses-thick Southern accent without falling back in love no matter what the character’s flaws.

With Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen delivers all the nutty-yet-clever hallmarks associated with earlier Coen films. Although the writing does occasionally lend itself to the odd moment of slight boredom or mild crisis of personal ethics, these are ultimately small prices to pay for the memorable joyride the film delivers. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s as close as Coen fans have gotten in some time.