The kind of movie made to stumble upon surfing cable at 2 am in a half-awake, half-intoxicated stupor, Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls aims for a lower artistic bar than anything the director (and certainly his brother) has previously approached, which accounts for much of its charm. Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke first completed the script some two decades ago––titled Drive-Away Dykes both then and now, if one goes by the end credits––and the film’s B-movie, pleasure-first appeal lies in the feeling that they simply dusted off a copy and immediately embarked on production. A slapdash narrative populated with eminently likable characters best described as joke-delivering caricatures, this marvelously queer road-trip comedy caper is a fleet-footed ride designed to pack in as much sex, violence, and psychedelic mind trips as an 84-minute runtime will allow.

Set in 1999 to ensure cellphones, Google Maps, and other modern tracking devices don’t tangle up the straightforward A-B plot, we begin with a noir-heavy prologue. At a Philadelphia diner, a mysterious man (Pedro Pascal) nervously holds a briefcase. He’s being followed and those in pursuit want his head. With moody neon lighting and canted angles courtesy of cinematographer Ari Wegner (far more in vibrant Zola mode than the restrained, regal The Power of the Dog), the opening is a playful precursor for what’s to come––a bout of over-the-top, screwball violence that strikes a laugh. Mid-cunnilingus, we’re then introduced to the free-spirited Jamie (Margaret Qualley) as she gets a call from Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), her uptight friend who hasn’t been laid in a few years. Although their relationship is strictly platonic, Jamie knows Marian’s life would be all the more improved if she could just have sex. Not built for monogamy, Jamie breaks up with her girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), and she and Marian decide they need to rethink their life’s path and hit the open road. So begins a drive-away journey down south to Tallahassee, though due to a mix-up, the car they’ve commandeered has some valuables that some very powerful men are after.

What follows is more humorous than hilarious; it takes a whole act to fully calibrate to Qualley’s mile-a-minute delivery in a Texas accent, which is initially strained in conveying Coen and Cooke’s rapid-fire dialogue. The rather cutesy adornments––from “Love is a sleigh ride to hell” painted on the car’s trunk to the cheeky wipe transitions in which the whole frame shakes to replicate a car driving off with accompanying sound effects––take a beat to warm to. Yet these initial hiccups are quickly brushed over for delivering this zany, sexcapade-heavy tale as swiftly as possible. In fact, whenever the leads even begin broaching anything with more thematic weight than how to get laid, the script shifts gears, interrupting the conversation to bounce to the thread of the goons on their tail: Flint (C.J. Wilson) and Arliss (Joey Slotnick), led by their boss (Colman Domingo). In typical Coen-esque fashion, these are atypically thoughtful thugs, pondering questions of what’s more effective in prying information from their marks: being more physical or finding an emotional, human connection.

With the Coen brothers’ recent, respective solo outings, the wildly disparate The Tragedy of Macbeth and Drive-Away Dolls also function as a prism by which to parse who brought what to the table in their four decades of work. While it may be a fool’s errand to wholly attribute certain ideas to one or the other, if one is wondering where Ethan’s feature hews closer to, just blend the breakneck comedy of Raising Arizona, the drug-induced hallucinations of The Big Lebowski, the slapstick banter of Hail, Caesar!, and, most inspiredly, the dildo innovation of Burn After Reading. Yes, some of Dolls‘ elements can feel like marginally less-effective versions of what’s come before, but what does feel new in the Coen oeuvre is its refreshingly brazen approach to sexuality and queerness. While centering the narrative in a lesbian perspective can initially seem solely for the gags it affords, flashbacks to a character’s sexual awakening and a tender, pivotal third-act sex scene show Coen and Cooke’s flair for bringing humanity and consideration amidst the mountain of punchlines they deliver.

Due to its relatively simple base pleasures, there’s a sense this madcap comedy will be dismissed for choosing nimbleness over pathos, but it is Coen and Cooke’s clear love for both B-movie tropes and the wonderfully game ensemble they’ve assembled that makes Drive-Away Dolls go down so easy. Even if one doesn’t fully connect with the attempts at humor, to see the film’s MacGuffin revealed––and precisely how it pertains to a certain supporting character––is ultimately worth the price of admission alone.

Drive-Away Dolls opens on Friday, February 23.

Grade: B

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