Learning to Drive

Posted by Joel Copling on September 10, 2015

"Learning to Drive" finds the oddest sources of metaphor in the strangest of places. Take one of the driving lessons central to the film's concept. Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a well-to-do literature critic who has just gone through the recent heartache of an unfaithful spouse, is getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time since another old heartbreak made her wary of vehicular transport of any kind. Her teacher is Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a part-time cab driver who also teaches others how to drive. He's a foreigner-by-birth, naturalized citizen of Queens who shows Wendy exactly the sort of kindness she needs right now. But the odd metaphor happens in a moment of dialogue between the two: Wendy's recent heartbreak is equated to the kind of unpredictability one can expect from pedestrians crossing one's path while driving.

The problem is not strictly because the two situations are completely different, although that's part of it. The concept of Wendy's being the victim of circumstance remains, but a situation involving her ex-husband Ted (Jake Weber, whose solid performance is undermined by the film's one-note treatment of the character) is not the same as unexpected aggression from passersby. The statement holds no water with the lot with which she is currently burdened. There is more to this character than Sarah Kernochan's screenplay wants to acknowledge, though at least the film is not about an unnecessary romance developing between this woman and her driving instructor.

But there isn't much to this narrative anyway, so a little more in the way of melodrama might have helped Kernochan and director Isabel Coixet's vision of these two people. Wendy copes with living life as a single person while her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) bridges the gap between Mom and Dad. The driving lessons are, of course, meant to open Wendy up to new possibilities, but it seems more obligatory on the movie's part than anything. Stronger is Darwan's subplot, which finds the man being thrust into an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) much later in life than he was expecting. This is an honorable man who ignores racial profiling (which we see in a pair of scenes as heated as they are predictable) and who truly believes in his religion's outlook on marriage.

The problem is that this is all far too fluffy to leave much of an impact. There is the misunderstanding by a car salesman that Darwan and Wendy are married. There is a complication in Darwan's rigid view of love and marriage when he realizes that he might be unimpressed with Jasleen. There is the inevitable moment when Wendy gives up the lessons before taking them back (Less predictable is the film's R-rating by the MPAA, which is earned by way of some surprisingly salty dialogue). The two main performances by Clarkson and Kingsley are more than fine, tapping into character depth that doesn't seem to exist on the page, but "Learning to Drive" is entirely disposable.

Film Information

Patricia Clarkson (Wendy), Ben Kingsley (Darwan), Jake Weber (Ted), Sarita Choudhury (Jasleen), Grace Gummer (Tasha), Avi Nash (Preet), Samantha Bee (Debbie).

Directed by Isabel Coixet and written by Sarah Kernochan.

Rated R (language, sexual content).

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on August 21, 2015.