Clarkson and Kingsley reason to see slight but likable picture
Spanish director Isabel Coixet (Paris, je t’aime; My Life Without Me) must have enjoyed working with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley in her well-received 2008 film Elegy, since she’s collaborating with them again here in Learning to Drive. While this vehicle (no pun intended) is more lightweight than Coixet’s earlier picture, its characters are equally compelling, and it makes for a pleasant enough end-of-summer movie outing.
Clarkson stars as Wendy, a highly educated, well-to-do Manhattan book critic whose world is shattered when her husband of 20 years leaves her for another woman. The break-up fight spills out from a restaurant into a cab, driven by Darwan, a Punjabi immigrant doing his best to ignore the emotional melee in his backseat. But of course we all know that since Darwan is played by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, he and Wendy must meet again, or else a central casting extra would have been in that driver seat, and we would have no story to watch.
And so meet again they do, when Wendy decides to finally learn to drive, ostensibly so she can go visit her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, a dead-ringer for her mother Meryl Streep) at a farm in Vermont. As luck would have it, Darwan not only drives cars, but teaches others how to drive them, too.
And thus we have two characters who could not be more different: Wendy is a wealthy atheist from the Upper West Side and Darwan is a working-class Sikh from Queens; Wendy’s marriage is ending, while Darwan is about to embark on a new, arranged marriage. Naturally, then, despite their differences, the two manage to form a relationship grounded in respect, mutual admiration, and deep, genuine affection. The storyline, in fact, is remarkably similar to another Patricia Clarkson picture about a woman with a distant husband who forms a superficially platonic but emotionally charged friendship with a stranger from another culture – 2009’s Cairo Time. If you liked that film, you’ll no doubt enjoy this one, too, as Clarkson basically plays the same character in a comparable situation here.
The story, by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, and based on a 2002 New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt, has some pretty heavy-handed metaphors; Darwan’s instructions to Wendy to tune out distracting thoughts and focus on the road in front of her are less than subtle allegories for living life, as is an image of a long, empty highway, just awaiting a mindful, determined driver. But Clarkson and Kingsley bring such depth of feeling and emotional intelligence to their roles that the more prosaic elements of the screenplay become bearable. And Sarita Choudhury, as Darwan’s newly arrived Indian bride, creates such an indelible, complicated, fresh character that you may wish her story had as much screen time as Wendy and Darwan’s.
Learning to Drive won’t win any big awards, and probably won’t be in theaters too long, but as far as slice-of-life, enjoyable character studies go, it works well, and is worth seeing before it becomes just another IMDB credit for Clarkson and Kingsley.
Learning to Drive opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, and next Friday, September 4th, at the Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.