Drive-Away Dolls

Posted on February 22, 2024 at 6:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and very intense violence including beheading, guns, fire, torture, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters

Once there was a vibrant category of trashy, low-budget films for the cheap theaters and drive-ins. Sometimes called grindhouse films or exploitation films because they were designed to be shocking, they are so beloved by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that they made a tribute film called “Grindhouse” that was a high-budget version of the kind of 50s double features that inspired them when they were growing up. “Drive-Away Dolls,” from Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, is another tribute to the Grindhouse-era films. While the sex and violence that was so shocking in the 1950s that audiences did not care about the shabby the production values are no longer shocking today, “Drive-Away Dolls” captures the transgressive spirit of those films, with no air quotes or irony, just engaging and very sincere joy in the genre. Top-level actors, camerawork, music, and wipes (we’ll get to them later) are just a bonus. Coen and Cooke (an un-credited co-director) say this is the first installment of their planned “lesbian b-movie trilogy.” Cooke is queer and they have spoken about their non-traditional marriage, which they have said is reflected in the relationships in the film.

The foundation for the story is one of the oldest and most beloved in the history of human stories: two people who are very different take a journey with many adventures along the way that expand their understanding of themselves and their world. Those people are the very free-spirited, impulsive Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the very conventional, wear a suit to the office and correct people’s grammar Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). It is 1999, and they are queer women living in Philadelphia. Jamie’s girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) has just kicked her out for cheating, and she has no place to stay. Her friend Marian is feeling stressed and wants to go to Tallahassee for a break. So, Jamie decides to come along, and suggests they get a drive-away car, through a service that matches up drivers with people who want their cars to be driven to another city. As it happens, Jamie and Marian show up at the drive-away company run by Curlie (a wonderfully dry Bill Camp) just as a car going to Tallahassee has been dropped off. Curlie, who has been told to expect a pick-up and assumes that they are the ones. We, on the other hand, know that they are not.

Jamie paints “Love is a sleigh ride to hell” on the trunk of the car, and the adventure begins. The car they are driving to Tallahassee is of great interest to some very bad people. We have already seen that they are prepared to kill and inflict all kinds of mayhem and that it relates somehow to, perhaps a nod to Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” here, an aluminum briefcase with contents that, unlike “Pulp Fiction,” will eventually be revealed and, trust me on this, you are not going to guess correctly.

The film is stylized but stylish with wipes — the transitions from one shot to the next — that are amusingly old-school and surprising guest star cameos I will not spoil here. Jamie and Marian have a lot of adventures along the way, including a make-out party with a female soccer team that is skillfully filmed in a manner that is empowering rather than explotative. The goons (as they are credited) sent to get back the briefcase have their own adventures in between bickering with each other about whether finesse or brutality is the best way to get what they want. The film includes the characteristic Coen twisty-funny dialogue, and makes good use of the settings, including statues of William Penn and Ponce de Leon gazing down on the wild adventures below. Qualley and Viswanathan are two of Hollywood’s most engaging young stars and their performances are joyful and captivating, their imperishable freshness and high spirits making it impossible for the outrageous elements to seem tawdry. It’s not for everyone, but it will be an instant favorite for fans of the Coens.

Parents should know that this movie has nudity and explicit sexual references and situations, a lot of peril and violence including a beheading, guns, knives, and fire, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Where would Jamie and Marian be today and what would most surprise them about what has and has not changed since 1999? How did they see each other differently over the course of the trip?

If you like this, try: “Grindhouse” and “Bottoms”

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A Serious Man

Posted on February 9, 2010 at 8:00 am

Larry Gopnik (theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor in 1967 Minneapolis. He covers a blackboard the size of a movie screen with equations, confidently lecturing his students about the uncertainty principle but outside the classroom unable to cope with the uncertainty all around him. He can explain that Schrodinger’s (hypothetical) Cat inside a box may be both dead and alive, but he has a much harder time understanding his wife (who is leaving him), a student who may be attempting to bribe him for a better grade, the tenure committee that will decide his professional fate, all of which has him feeling as though he is in a box and both dead and alive, too. Larry’s son does not seem to care about anything but being able to watch the western sitcom “F Troop.” His daughter seems to spend all of her time washing her hair. His brother (Richard Kind) seems to be either a genius or completely mad, but in either case he does not seem capable of living on his own. Larry wants to be a serious man, and he wants some answers.

So, like a character in a fable or a fairy tale, he brings his questions to three rabbis, a young one who wants him to see everything as an expression of God’s will, an experienced one who tells him a mesmerizing but pointless story about a non-Jew’s teeth and tells him to do good works, and one who is very old and remote and is too busy thinking to talk to him. Internally, he becomes more stressed but his reactions are passive and conciliatory. The audience feels a sense of helplessness and dread as it seems we are more aware of the disasters heading for Larry than he is. A record company calls to tell him he needs to pay for the records he ordered. He says he has not ordered anything and they tell him that under the terms of their agreement not doing anything means ordering. And Larry is as poorly equipped to resolve that problem as he is to stop his wife from leaving him for a neighbor who somehow has the confidence, admiration, and deference he wishes for. Throughout the movie, there are many close-ups of ears, but no one seems to be listening to what is going on in front of them. He goes up on the roof to adjust the antennae, but still has trouble receiving the signal.

Under pressure, he begins to make some compromises that are contrary to his values, and that increases his stress and sense of losing control. As he searches for some sense of meaning or connection or even (he is a scientist after all) rationality, he does not realize that the answer is what he tells his students: that everything is uncertain but you are still responsible for it on the midterm.

Much has been made of the fact that for the first time Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film with autobiographical elements. Like Larry’s children, the Coen brothers grew up in a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the 1960’s, and like Larry, their father was a professor. But you get the feeling that they have once again appropriated and embraced and tweaked a genre just for the fun of it, and that it has no more meaning to them than any of the others. As Larry says, the stories are just illustrative; the math is how it really works.

Once again, as with Wes Anderson, meticulous and imaginative production design and a level of opacity far beyond most mainstream releases is often confused with profundity. Perhaps this is an ink blot for us to project our own questions on. Or perhaps it is their version of what Larry tells his students, and our midterm is coming up.

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