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Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan look out for hired killers on the road in "Drive-Away Dolls." Courtesy Universal Pictures & Focus Features

Almost since there have been lesbians in movies, there have been crime thrillers to put them in. Drive-Away Dolls is just the latest of these, along with last December’s Eileen and the upcoming Love Lies Bleeding. Nor is this a new trend. How far back do you want to go with these? Monster? Bound? Butterfly Kiss? For some reason, gay men don’t wind up in capers where there’s contraband and gunplay and somebody — preferably a bad guy — winding up dead. Among these, Drive-Away Dolls is a pretty uneven piece of work that just barely gets by on its charm.

The story starts in Philadelphia in the waning days of 1999, as severely repressed Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) decides she needs a fresh start by taking a road trip to Tallahassee to visit an aunt. Tagging along is her friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley), a compulsive talking Fort Worth native who’s homeless after her cop ex-girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein) kicks her out for cheating. The rental agent (Bill Camp) gives them a car intended for some mobsters (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson), and the latter proceed to beat the agent down before heading down the interstate after our heroines.

This is the first movie by Ethan Coen without his brother Joel, though as I write this the news has dropped that they’re getting back together. It’s distressing that there’s so much padding in a film that runs a scant 82 minutes — we don’t need the flashbacks to Marian’s childhood, nor do we need the period-inappropriate acid-trippy visuals involving the pizza that the lesbians eat at a roadside joint. The ladies are unwittingly in possession of a severed human head and some other body parts that would supposedly take down a puritanical right-wing U.S. Senator (Matt Damon), and I don’t believe that the cargo would do that for a politician with ample deniability, nor that he would send hit men after them. Also, everybody in the movie is a Henry James reader for reasons that I’m unable to discern.

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The supporting cast wastes the likes of Damon, Colman Domingo as the mobsters’ exasperated boss, and Pedro Pascal as the unfortunate owner of that severed head. Feldstein, on the other hand, gets to beat up one of the thugs when they push their way into her home — what’s funny about that is that the one thug continues negotiating with her in a reasonable tone while she’s stomping on his partner’s crotch. Before that, she weepily breaks up with Jamie while unscrewing a dildo that’s mounted on the wall of their apartment. I’d ask what that’s doing there, but I have a few ideas.

Our lead actresses have enough chemistry that it’s credible when their platonic friendship turns not-so-platonic, though I could have used the sense that these women are running on adrenaline from keeping one step ahead of some killers. Qualley’s motormouth isn’t funny enough to carry the film, and her Texas accent is thicker than any you’ve heard in the Fort Worth city limits. (Then again, maybe not. Maybe you’ve heard thicker at the Stock Show.) Viswanathan is an Australian actress whom I’ve so far only seen playing Americans, and while she’s okay at playing the straight man (so to speak) and reacting to Jamie’s wordy ramblings, anyone who’s seen Blockers or even The Broken Hearts Gallery can attest to how effortlessly hilarious she can be when she’s delivering the punchlines.

If Drive-Away Dolls is more of a vibe than a movie, it’s not an unpleasant one. I think I would have appreciated it more if I’d seen it in 1996, when there were fewer movies about lesbians and far fewer ones with an Indian-American lead character. If you’re going to watch it, watch it for the two stars who have better and more substantive roles in their past and their future.

Drive-Away Dolls
Starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan. Directed by Ethan Coen. Written by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke. Rated R.

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