Producers: Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke, Robert Graf, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner   Director: Ethan Coen   Screenplay: Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke   Cast: Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp and Matt Damon   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: D

According to one interview, Tricia Cooke, who co-wrote “Drive-Away Dolls” with her husband Ethan Coen, asked him, “How low can we go?”  The answer, as evidenced by this, his first solo fiction feature as a director, was apparently: “Awfully low.”  With an accent on the “Awful.”

“Dolls,” originally titled “Drive-Away Dykes” (a moniker that appears breathlessly at the close), is a road movie, one determined to be outrageous at every turn.  That determination makes it one of the most excruciatingly irritating, and desperately unfunny, comedies to come down the pike in a long while, a supposedly edgy send-up of exploitation movies of decades past that makes you remember them fondly by comparison.

The roadsters are Jamie (Margaret Qualley), a high-octane free spirit, and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), her mousy friend.  When Jamie has a breakup with her hot-tempered girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), a cop, and moves out, she convinces Marian to go on a drive with her to Tallahassee.  So they visit a drive-away outfit run by an irascible guy called Curlie (Bill Camp)—but don’t call him that!—and ask for a car to take there.

It just so happens he has one, a Dodge Aries ready and waiting for a trip to the Florida city, and they rent it.  But alas, the rental is a slip-up: the car was supposed to go to Two Stooges who happen to be gangsters, lunkhead Flint (C.J. Wilson) and his loquacious, censorious partner Arliss (Joey Slotnick), in the employ of a smooth boss called The Chief (Colman Domingo, wasted).  As will shortly be revealed, the trunk contains a silver metal briefcase with mysterious contents (one of the few good jokes comes when Jamie references Robert Aldrich’s Mickey Spillane noir “Kiss Me Deadly” as a reason to be careful about opening it) and a hatbox containing the severed head of The Collector (Pedro Pascal, in a dreary cameo) who, in an opening sequence, was seen in possession of the case before being knocked off by a mob hit-man pretending to be a bartender and decapitated by Flint and Arliss.  Fortunately, the head is covered in dry ice, much drier than any of the humor here.

When The Chief finds out about the mistake from Curlie, he sends his henchmen to track down the girls, who despite a promise to drive directly to Tallahassee, take time at libidinous Jamie’s insistence to investigate lesbian bars along the way—places with names like She Shed and Butter Churn—and spend an evening with a girls’ soccer team more inclined to play in a bar or motel room than on the field.  (Marian, by contrast, prefers to spend her time alone reading Henry James.)  In time they accidentally discover their secret cargo and what the items in the briefcase might be worth, particularly to family-values oriented Senator Channel (Matt Damon, another DOA cameo).  He arrives on the scene at about the same time as the furious Sukie, bound and determined to get rid of the hated dog Jamie left behind.  Hilarity does not result.

“Dolls” strives not just to capture the kind of quirkiness that many of the films Ethan made in concert with his brother Joel over the years exudes, but to multiply it, adding a larky queer sensibility to the mix.  It also aims for a garish neon-colored look that mimics comic-book visuals, a goal to which cinematographer Ari Wegner, production designer Yong Ok Lee and costumer Peggy Schnitzer contribute energetically.  But the effort is hobbled by Coen’s lackadaisical direction and the stuttering editing from Cooker, the brothers’ longtime collaborator whose work here can’t overcome the weakness of the material she is partially responsible for.  Even Carter Burwell’s score falls below his usual standard.

Nor can the picture depend on the performances.  Viswanathan earns some smiles with her hangdog expressions and the gradual slippage of Marian’s inhibitions, but Qualley, who’s obviously meant to be the movie’s comic sparkplug, is exhaustingly overbearing, her insatiable hedonism and drawling delivery quickly becoming annoying rather than charmingly offbeat.  Feldstein is no less broad but not as maddening, simply because she’s not onscreen as much, while Slotnick and Wilson make a drab pair of clowns, undermined not only by the inferior material they’re saddled with but Coen’s clumsy direction of their scenes.  On the other hand, Camp generates a few chuckles as the somnolent, but oddly explosive Curlie.  Overall the movie feels much longer than its eighty-four-minute running-time would suggest.

“Stay-Away Dolls” seems a more appropriate title.