Margaret Qualley (left) and Geraldine Viswanathan in director Ethan Coen's "Drive-Away...

Margaret Qualley (left) and Geraldine Viswanathan in director Ethan Coen's "Drive-Away Dolls." Credit: Focus Features

PLOT Two women on a road trip discover that their car holds a strange cargo.

CAST Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley

RATED R (explicit sex, violence, vulgarity)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE A Coen Brother makes a late bid to hop on the Tarantino bandwagon.

In “Drive-Away Dolls,” two young gay women — prim Marian, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, and swaggering tomboy Jamie, played by Margaret Qualley — take a road-trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee in a borrowed car. Somewhere between a make-out session with an all-girl soccer team and a steamy night in a luxury hotel, they realize that their trunk contains a small leather box oozing a sinister white fog.

Jamie advises against opening it. The whole situation, she says, reminds her of a movie she once saw, and it didn’t end well.

That movie might be “Kiss Me Deadly,” Robert Aldrich’s nuclear-themed noir from 1955. Or maybe it’s “Repo Man,” Alex Cox’s punk-rock comedy about a car that carries a government secret. Given the movie Jamie is trapped in, however, she might be referring to Quentin Tarantino’s entire output during the 1990s, which reinvented trash cinema and triggered an avalanche of copycat sleazeball fare like “Wild Things” and “Bound.”

Ethan Coen, one half of the acclaimed Coen Brothers, makes his solo feature directing debut with “Drive-Away Dolls,” (cowritten and coedited with his wife, Tricia Cooke), a sexploitation flick that hops on the Tarantino bandwagon about 30 years too late. Though set in 1999, it looks like something from the drive-in era, with girls in knee-high tube socks, wood-paneled rec-rooms and a beat-up Dodge Aries left over from the Reagan administration. There are psychedelic interludes that look like light shows from the 1960s. And then there’s the movie’s depiction of gay women, which is either equally dated or ultraprogressive, depending on your point of view.

These women have a lot of sex, or at least the freewheeling Jamie does, and the movie really wants us to see it. (The graphic opening scene, featuring Beanie Feldstein as Jamie’s girlfriend Sukie, is played for laughs but feels a little leering as well.) These women are also obsessed with sex toys, or at least the movie is. Part of the plot involves Matt Damon as a Republican senator who is desperate to buy one, for unlikely reasons, but the movie finds a way to wield nearly a half-dozen of these things. You’ve probably never seen so many in one place outside a Times Square video store.

The overall result is a strained mishmash of Russ Meyer (the great ‘60s soft-core auteur), the aforementioned Tarantino (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson play suit-clad thugs who spend a lot of time bickering in a car) and Coen’s own “Fargo” (Qualley speaks with a small-town Texas ack-saint that grates immediately, and constantly). Despite all the up-close sex and myriad bedroom accessories, “Drive-Away Dolls” ends up feeling pretty lame.

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