See more of the story

When Henry James goes high, "Drive-Away Dolls" goes low.

The Ethan Coen-directed caper comedy, his first feature without brother and fellow St. Louis Park native Joel, is willing to go very, very low (no spoilers on what's in a mysterious suitcase whose contents are only revealed at the very end but I will say that it's not a Gutenberg bible). Two characters are depicted reading two different novels by the classy James but Coen's gleeful B-movie is much more interested in lesbian kissing games, moronic gangsters, cheesy pop songs and what we'll euphemistically call "marital aids."

It's 1999 and our broadly played heroines are Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), two 20-ish lesbians who, on a lark, agree to transport the suitcase from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, Fla. They do it in a "drive-away," a short-term car that can be obtained by those who are too young to legally rent a car if they're willing to leave it at a predetermined dropoff location.

There's not much that Jamie — who self-identifies as "loquacious" and has a very bad, vaguely Southern accent — and Marian aren't game for. Side trips on the way to Florida involve a female soccer team, several of those moronic gangsters, a couple of wild hotels, singing along to Linda Ronstadt hits and both the acquisition of and divesting of the aforementioned marital aids.

Cowritten by Ethan's wife, editor Tricia Cooke, "Dolls" has some of the same anarchic, screwball energy as the Coens' "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lebowski." Its pleasures come not from the ending's explanation of various puzzling elements (including two big-star cameos) but from the wackiness along the way. The humor is, as the screenwriters have gleefully acknowledged, "juvenile," but the performances are vivid and, honestly, I'd watch a whole movie starring deadpan Bill Camp as Curlie, who rents the women the car that leads to all of their adventures.

As in Joel's significantly more serious "Macbeth," many Coen collaborators team with Ethan and Cooke on "Dolls," including composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay (both of whom have worked on every single Coen brothers movie). There's a sense that a bunch of pals got together to make "Dolls" and, just as the movie insists that the fun part is what happens along the way, they seem to have teamed up to entertain themselves while making a low-stakes goofball project.

Was "Drive-Away Dolls" more fun to make than it is to watch? Possibly. It's also conceivable that a second "Dolls" viewing will make clearer what the rules are in these women's corner of the universe and whether it's significant that a new millennium is just around the corner for them.

It's also possible that the more you search "Drive-Away Dolls" for meaning, the sillier it gets.

'Drive-Away Dolls'

**1/2 out of 4 stars

Rated: R for nudity, language and violence.

Where: In theaters.