Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls is a delightfully raucous lesbian road comedy. Don’t listen to the wet-blanket critics — this film is good news in dull times for American movies.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls. (Focus Features)

I really enjoyed Drive-Away Dolls, the new Ethan Coen film he made with his wife and editor, Tricia Cooke, instead of his usual filmmaking partner, his brother, Joel Coen. It’s a deliberately loose, raunchy romp about a pair of lesbian friends who go on a wild road trip from Philadelphia, to Tallahassee. Their vehicle is a rental “drive-away” car transported one way to a destination drop-off point. This one turns out to contain sinister-looking packages that seemingly belong to a couple of violent goons who are soon hot on their trail.

I admit I was biased in favor of Drive-Away Dolls. I love the Coen worldview, which involves an irreverent, darkly comedic outlook on life. Their favorite genres, judging by their entire film career, are screwball comedy and film noir, which are also my favorite genres.

And I’m also desperately sick of the dumb, lugubrious, ideologically nauseating state of American cinema. We see so many overlong, overproduced, stupid yet heavily self-serious films, a number of which are being celebrated this awards season. Tired superhero movies and bland, dishonest biopics are churned out ad nauseam.

In interviews publicizing Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen expressed his own dismay at the current state of the movies. When asked if he and Cooke set out on purpose to make an “unimportant film,” he responded with this heart’s cry for our pious era:

There’s an underserved audience for unimportant movies, is our belief. God. Don’t you want to go to a movie? . . . [N]ot to name names — obviously, you’d never get us to — but important movies like the contemporary ones? God. Why? Why? Why?

However, it seems I was one of the few who were in the mood for a raucous, lively, throwback comedy like Drive-Away Dolls. It’s doing very badly with critics and the mainstream public. The box-office stats and Rotten Tomatoes scores bear out every fear Ethan Coen has indicated about the current state of moviegoing, especially his worry that people no longer seek out movies for regular old fun.

This is a shame, because Drive-Away Dolls features two delightful and charismatic up-and-coming actors in the lead roles. Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), born to be a star but still awaiting more widespread recognition, is wonderfully goofy, kinetic, and endearing as Jamie, a loquacious free-loving Texan whose exuberant sex life breaks up her relationship with her cop girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) in the film’s first sequence. I should note here that the zany, explicit sex scenes are such a rarity in Coen films, they’re pretty startling. And I can imagine that a lot of hidebound Americans aren’t quite prepared for hot, hilarious lesbian love breaking out all over the screen.

Kicked out of the apartment she shared with Sukie, Jamie proposes an adventurous road trip to her uptight intellectual friend Marian (the hilarious Geraldine Viswanathan of Blockers). Marian wants to visit her strongly religious aunt in Tallahassee in order to go birding, whereas Jamie’s plan is wacky diversions all the way, such as visiting the world’s largest Dixie Cup, plus plenty of evenings in louche lesbian bars in order to get Marian laid. This is a period film, in case you haven’t guessed, set back in 1999 and nostalgic for less obviously terrifying times politically than we have now. As well as an era when there were lesbian bars all over the landscape.

Marian is bringing along her copy of Henry James’s The Europeans on this road trip as her idea of entertainment. Coincidentally also reading The Europeans is the Chief (Colman Domingo), a silky-voiced, well-dressed criminal of elevated tastes trying to hold onto his patience as he commands the bumbling duo of goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C. J. Wilson), who are trying to recover the packages hidden in the trunk of Jamie and Marian’s rented Dodge Aries.

There are some nice laughs about the famously opaque inaccessibility of Henry James, with Jamie claiming having The Portrait of a Lady assigned in high school put her off reading for life.

But the broad themes of the novel are played out in the movie, which is typical of most impious yet erudite Coen films. The Europeans is about two worldly young people raised in Europe who visit their New England cousins and discover that, ironically, the “New World” tends to be more hidebound, traditional, and morally conservative than the Old. Yet the Old vs. New World cousins have something to offer each other — just encountering and negotiating their opposing sets of values is at least potentially liberating.

In Drive-Away Dolls, Jamie, the Chief, and Arliss are inclined to be “European” in various ways — the elegant self-presentation of the Chief, and Jamie and Arliss’s insistence on being more open to life and sexuality and a wider range of experiences. It’s especially funny to hear Arliss, Goon #1, try to persuade Flint, Goon #2, using therapy-speak about achieving more empathic human connections instead of automatically pulling his gun on people. Flint and Marian are more New England–ish in their rigidity and sexual angst, plus Marian labors under a heavier sense of moral duty.

Whereas Arliss and Flint will be negotiating the tensions in their relationship while armed to the teeth and trained to kill, which doesn’t bode well, Jamie and Marian have a better chance at finding a happy equilibrium. But all of this sophisticated thematic stuff is tossed off as lightly as the rest of the film. It signals its larkiness in every way, including riotous editing choices like twisting wipes, plus erratic psychedelic interludes of swirling neon colored imagery with Miley Cyrus, in a cameo performance as Tiffany Plaster Caster, writhing sexily.

Her role is an obscure reference to Cynthia Albritton, a 1960s artist known as Cynthia Plaster Caster, who gained fame for her plaster casts of the erect penises of various rock and roll celebrities such as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. This kind of obscure but hilarious reference to lost American cultural figures is also typical of Coen films, but they never throw them away entirely carelessly. There’s a whole “who’s got the phallus” theme running through the film centering on a briefcase full of plaster casts made from the penises of men in power, including a supreme court judge, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and right-wing Republican Senator Channel (Matt Damon), who’s running on a conservative family values ticket and desperately wants his dick back.

Pedro Pascal in Drive-Away Dolls. (Focus Features)

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times claims that the Tiffany Plaster Caster interludes “amid lava-lamp swirls of colors, vivid lysergic bursts . . . only make the rest of the movie and its two leads seem all the more lackluster.”

But don’t listen to these wet-blanket critics. There’s something lackluster here all right, but it’s certainly not Drive-Away Dolls.

And even if this roughhouse comedy isn’t your style, the two leads are so funny and effervescent it’s downright insane to dismiss their high-spirited talent. Plus, the supporting cast is insanely great, featuring hilarious turns by Pedro Pascal and Bill Camp along with Domingo, Feldstein, and Damon.

The bizarre drubbing this film is taking is a wake-up call to American culture — lighten up and grow up, so you can watch funny lesbian sex scenes without flinching. Regardless of the bizarre drubbing this film is taking from critics, Coen and Cooke are going right ahead with their planned “lesbian B-movie trilogy,” of which Drive-Away Dolls is the first.

The second is called Honey Don’t and will also star Qualley, along with Aubrey Plaza and Chris Evans. Coen and Cooke are currently in Albuquerque, New Mexico, casting Honey Don’t and calling locals of all ages to apply for both speaking and nonspeaking roles, noting that “The look/tone of this film is gritty, grizzled, dusty, sunburnt, rural Bakersfield, CA.”

This is good news in dull times for American movies. Maybe three zany, laugh-filled, low-budget flicks in a row will create an audience for something a bit livelier at the multiplex.

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