Cube Critics review ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ and ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

Plus: An interview with Bill Irwin, currently in ‘On Beckett’ at the Guthrie

Two scenes from movies
"Drive-Away Dolls" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
Courtesy of Focus Features and Amazon

Cube Critics Max Sparber and Aron Woldeslassie discuss a quirky Ethan Coen film, “Drive-Away Dolls” and a unique adaptation of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” as a series; plus, performer Bill Irwin’s deep dive into Samuel Beckett’s legacy, connecting vaudeville to the playwright’s profound influence.

The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity.

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MPR Arts Editor Max Sparber: Aron,Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the movie, starred Angelina Jolie, didn’t it?

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MPR Associate Producer Aron Woldeslassie: And Brad Pitt, but she carries it.

Sparber: And the movie that I saw is a Coen Brothers film, who also wrote a movie for Angelina Jolie. So that’s kind of the theme for this weekend.

Woldeslassie: Oh, yeah. Angelina Jolie-adjacent. I enjoy that.

Sparber: And with that, I’m Max Sparber

Woldeslassie: And I’m Aron Woldeslassie.

Sparber: And this is Cube Critics.

Aron, I watched a film called “Drive-Away Dolls,” in theaters now. It’s a film by Minnesota’s own Ethan Coen, without his usual partner, his brother Joel. It was co-written with his wife, film editor Tricia Cooke. And it’s loosely based on her own experiences, going to lesbian bars and that sort of thing when she was younger.

It is a lesbian road trip crime film, you don’t see a lot of those and it tells of two friends who take the wrong car and definitely the wrong trip. They’re chased across the country by two goofy goons, which gives a sense of the tone of the film. It’s a very silly film.

The Coen Brothers occasionally write movies for other people, and it’s not generally their best work, but it can be entertaining. Some examples of the ones that I don’t particularly like are “Intolerable Cruelty,” which was intended for Ron Howard, and “Ladykillers,” which was intended for Barry Sonnenfeld. And they also wrote “Unbroken,” which was directed by Angelina Jolie.

But some of these films, even if they’re not their best, are fitfully enjoyable, and sometimes go on to be cult films. I’d compare this with one of the better ones, a film called “Crime Wave” from 1985, which I think I’m the only person who has ever seen. This is similarly silly, loud, cartoonish, frenzied, wild and I recommended it. “Drive-Away Dolls” in theaters today.

Woldeslassie: I have to ask, do you see this becoming another gem and the Coen discography,

Sparber: I think it might go on to become a cult film, which sometimes happens with Coen Brothers films.

Woldeslassie: Well, if it doesn't become a cult film, maybe it’ll get remade into a series, which is what happened with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the series I ended up watching this week.

This series is based on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the movie that came out in 2005. The movie follows a married couple, as they inevitably find out that they’re secret agents and try to kill each other.

The series goes in a different direction. It follows two strangers who land a job as spies, who are then forced to get married and work together. The two slowly fall in love and we get to see them descend into madness, as well as romance.

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” stars Donald Glover, who we obviously know from “Atlanta,” as well as Childish Gambino. What a weird thing to say. And Maya Erskine, who you will absolutely know from her incredible work in “Pen15.”

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is eight episodes of odd romance, where you where you think action and violence would be a great way to punctuate this series. It’s actually the love and the intimate details of two people slowly intertwining with each other. And with that comes the insecurity of opening yourself up well, as well as the danger of two spies opening themselves up.

I really love this series, it did a great job of forcing us to understand all of the dangerous conflicts that come with two people melding together. I’m going to absolutely tell you to watch this series. It’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” on Amazon.

A man holds two books
Actor and clown Bill Irwin, currently appearing in "On Beckett" at the Guthrie.
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

Sparber: This is Cube Critic and MPR News, arts editor Max Sparber with a Cube Critics extra. This week, I did a story on the play “On Beckett” at the Guthrie Theater, which stars legendary actor and clown Bill Irwin.

I also did an interview with Irwin in advance of the show and I’m including audio from that in this podcast. Please enjoy.

Bill Irwin: I’m not entirely good at defining or describing “On Beckett.” I hope what people will see when they come to the Guthrie is an actor still on fire, with fascination with this one writer’s work. It just grabs me. It haunts me and won’t let me go and never has the last 40 years.

And it’s still a mystery to me. Even though to my great surprise, people are starting to refer to me as an expert or a master interpreter, I think, no, I’m not sure that describes me. But I am somebody who’s absolutely haunted by this writer’s writing — in good and bad ways. And I bring that to the stage every time we do “On Beckett” there at the Guthrie.

Here’s the interesting thing. Sometimes people say, well, wait a minute, clown traditions and baggy pants, vaudeville tradition and Samuel Beckett, what do they have to do with each other? And other people say, well, that makes perfect sense, those two angles. In my mind, there’s an absolute connection.

Beckett loved film, early film. He was born in the early part of the 20th century. His was the first generation to come of age with motion pictures in their psyche. Nobody, no generation before that had.

He was fascinated with the great silent comedians. He wanted to be a filmmaker at one point in his life. And his family also went off into the variety theater. You know, you read Samuel Beckett’s letters, they're talking about, yes, we’ve booked tickets to see the so-and-so brothers.

So he was knowledgeable about what Americans would tend to call vaudeville, but variety stage artists, as well as Proust, Goethe, Shakespeare and any other human being who ever wrote a written word document.

Beckett had a kind of a weird, omnivorous appetite and it seemed a sort of photographic memory so that he’s almost always riffing on one or two or more writers when he’s writing his own work.

Beckett writes, almost willfully, difficult, like, you know, this isn’t going to be easy, and then you’ll suddenly give a character an almost essay-like polished phrase. And that is a beautiful example:

“They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”