Mark Reviews Movies

Learning to Drive


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Isabel Coixet

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Avi Nash, Samantha Bee

MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 8/21/15 (limited); 8/28/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 27, 2015

Sarah Kernochan's screenplay for Learning to Drive feels as if it has been manufactured to elicit as much sweetness as possible. Two people, from two very different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, come together by chance and discover that each has a lot to teach the other about life, love, and overcoming one's problems. Every lesson is reduced to a truism of sorts, mostly using the process of driving a car as a metaphor, because that's the convenient hook that brings the characters together in the first place.

The screenplay (based on an article by Katha Pollitt) slams those metaphors in our face, lest we miss that, when the driving teacher is discussing how a person must focus entirely on what's happening on the road and let go of the distractions of one's life, he's also giving advice to a recently separated woman about how she might be able to move forward with her own life. These things, as well as a few subplots that either have little to do with the central characters or play some development as a joke, really make the movie seem more like an act of construction (A movie like this needs these elements, so put that here and this there) than creativity.

My favorite of these little chestnuts, by the by, occurs fairly early in the movie. The driving instructor, having tricked the woman into pulling out into traffic after her repeated protests that she would rather not proceed with her lessons, tells the woman, "Now you have to move forward, because I haven't taught you how to back up." There might be some sort of hidden wisdom in that observation/declaration, but really, it's just a good joke.

The movie does have a sense of humor about this entire situation, which makes it slightly easier to forgive its blatant lesson-making as a cheap screenwriter's trick. It's not too sappy or mushy, and thanks primarily to its two lead actors, there is a sense of a genuine bond forming between these two characters.

Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is a literary critic whose husband Ted (Jake Weber) leaves her for another woman, citing that Wendy has been inattentive for years on account of her work. Wendy follows her husband out of the restaurant where he dumped her and into a cab driven by Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh who gained political asylum in the United States due to persecution of people of his religious faith in his homeland. By night, Darwan drives a cab, and by day, he gives driving lessons.

When Darwan returns something Wendy left in his cab, she notices his driving school car and asks for lessons. Ted did all the driving, and she wants to be able to visit her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) in Virginia.

To Kernochan's credit, the relationship between Wendy and Darwan takes an unexpected path, because we have been trained to anticipate that any close connection between two unrelated characters of the opposite sex will inevitability lead to romance. Kernochan intentionally teases that notion throughout the movie, only to shatter it.

For example, we're led to believe that Darwan is seeking advice for a gift for Wendy. He asks his nephew (Avi Nash), an undocumented immigrant who suggests lingerie, and he asks Wendy herself, who recommends a book of poetry. When he buys such a book, we think we know where this is heading, but it turns out that he's preparing for the arrival of Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a woman from India to whom Darwan is arranged to be married.

What's nice about this development is that allows us to see the relationship between Wendy and Darwan for what it is, without the baggage of seeking signs of something more and waiting for the romantic mood to strike them. The movie moves back in forth between their individual lives. Darwan tries adjusting to married life with little success (His bride does not speak much English, won't leave their house, and doesn't like that her new husband is rarely home). Wendy attempts to cope with the fact that Ted isn't just having one of his short-lived "itches" (She has a few too many monologues to say exactly what she's feeling and daydreams about the men who have wronged her, which are simply strange and unconnected from everything else).

When they come together, though, we get those life lessons via driving instruction. While these tidbits of wisdom are on-the-nose, Kingsley and Clarkson's performances are gentle and thoughtful enough to almost compensate for the screenplay's obviousness. Some extraneous elements, such as Jasleen's home life and a blind date that leads to a comic scene involving marathon sex, distract from what's key here.

All of this balances a fine line, with the actors doing a commendable job of making this material come across as more natural than it is, and the movie only hits an egregiously wrong note at the very end. It attempts to cram in the one thing we thought the movie had avoided, and it does so in an awkward way. One wishes director Isabel Coixet had ignored the dialogue in that last scene between these characters. It tries to turn Learning to Drive into something it has not been, and the only things that these characters need to say to each other are right there on Clarkson and Kingsley's faces.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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