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LEARNING TO DRIVE (2015) review

August 30, 2015

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written by: Sarah Kernochan
produced by: Dana Friedman and Daniel Hammond
directed by: Isabel Coixet
rating: R (for language and sexual content)
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: August 28, 2015 (limited)

 

“Learning to Drive” is out during a time when a handful of light and breezy movies have been released that cater to the ‘over 50’ crowd, miraculously starring actors over 50. Take you pick from “Ricki and the Flash”, “Grandma” and “A Walk in the Woods”.  The term “light and breezy” does not dismiss any of these movies –  although some of them, like this one, could benefit from a script doctor – rather it describes how easy it is to take in their qualities. Even if there are problems with story or characterization, the performances and overall tone of these films is entertaining and enjoyable. Such is the case with “Learning to Drive”, which features two great lead performances, despite a mediocre screenplay.

Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) is a successful New York book critic whose husband of twenty years, Ted (Jack Weber), is through being ignored and finally leaves her for a younger woman – a writer, in fact. Wendy thought this was yet another seven-year itch  for Ted, but it’s clear her marriage is over, which leaves her stunned and alone in their Upper West Side townhouse, where they raised their only child, daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, the other Meryl Streep’s daughter, not the one in “Ricki and The Flash”) who is now college-age and enthusiastically farming (like she’s trying out a sport) somewhere in Vermont. Suddenly single and distraught, Wendy reluctantly decides to learn how to drive, something she’s never done – why bother? – there’s the subway, train and cabs in NYC. Well, it could be a metaphor for her own sudden independence and it’ll definitely help in seeing her daughter whenever she wants.

 

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Her driving instructor is Darwan Singh Tur (Sir Ben Kingsley), a calm and collected Sikh cabbie who daylights as a driving instructor at Ena’s Driving School. NOTE: That’s a real business by the way – I just called their number on a whim and was taken aback when a woman answered, “Good Afternoon, thank you for calling Ena’s Driving School…” – so that earns the movie a certain level of authenticity, I suppose (and made me feel kind of awkward).

Just as an uneasy Wendy is finding her bearings in her newly single status, Darwan embarks down an unknown road as his pre-arranged bride, Jasleen (Sarita Choudrey, “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love”), arrives from India. Picking her up from the airport was one of many favorite scenes in the movie. This new element to the fastigious and orderly Darwan’s life suddenly has the instructor as intimidated as Wendy is behind the wheel. As the two develop a bond of respect and trust, the wind up learning how to navigate their individual new roads by leaning on each other for influence and advice. Together, they embrace new challenges with courage, fear and humor.

“Learning to Drive” is based on an 2oo2 autobiographical article by essayist Katha Pollit that was published in the New Yorker, which would eventually be added to a collection of her stories. She actually was a non-driving New Yorker who learned to get behind the wheel of her own life in order to move beyond the sudden demise of her marriage.  So, as contrived and convenient as this  screenplay by Sarah Kernochan (whose work ranges from “9 1/2 Weeks” to her last work, 2000’s “What Lies Beneath”)  seems, it still actually happened in one way or another. This on-the-nose adaptation may be thinly characterized, leaving two splendid actors in Clarkson and Kingsley, left to flesh out what isn’t on the page by their intuitiveness and concentrated decisions. They do so effortlessly with a relaxed purity and sincerity that discards any potential for mushiness or cheese to their scenes.

 

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Director Isabel Coixet previously worked with Clarkson and Kingsley when she directed them in 2008’s “Elegy”, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s A Dying Animal. It’s Clarkson who’s had this story on the burner for nine years though, waiting for the right time for all the right pieces to align for Pollit’s story to come to the big-screen.  My bet is she couldn’t think of anyone better to play Darwan than Kingsley and she’d be right. Kingsley’s Darwan is surprisingly complex; calm and precise on the outside yet nervous and unsure on the inside. This is especially seen when Darwan seeks advice on what kind of gift to get his new bride. His undocumented young nephew, Preet (Avi Nash), suggests lingerie, but he goes with a book of poetry suggested by Wendy. Kingsley provides a welcome sense of openness and humility to these scenes that feels genuine. Rather than playing it for laughs, he and Coixet see the scene as a proud man getting beyond his own safety parameters and trusting others to help him with this foreign territory.

With a story like this though, most of the characterization moments will be when the two leads are behind the wheel of a vehicle. This is where the driving metaphors that can be applied toward real life are primarily given. Darwan is meticulous in his instructions, but it’s his real-life lessons that resonate with viewers, lessons that a frazzled Wendy probably won’t realize right away. He tells her to forget about the distractions in life when you are driving and be aware of what’s around you, ahead of you and anticipate what will come ahead. Good advice in any situation. Of course, with a movie involving an adult learning how to drive, we should expect a motor vehicle accident at some point and it does come, providing opportunity for both actors to add even more emotional range to their characters.

What I enjoyed most out of these driving scenes is watching Clarkson act as someone who does not know how to drive. As I watched, I thought it would be a challenge for an actor, especially if you have years of driving experience. I don’t know about Clarkson’s driving experience, but the anxiety and fear she conveys as Wendy – especially when getting in and out of a parallel-parked position – is very convincing. These scenes had me reflecting on my own student driving days and made me grateful I didn’t learn how to drive in a heavily populated urban area.

Although I felt Kernochan’s ending was a bit disingenuous to the platonic bond Wendy and Darwan had developed throughout the movie, there is still much to appreciate about “Learning to Drive”. It’s ‘light and breezy’ as previously mentioned, but it also has a sweetness to it that’s rare. Just as rare as it is to see a drama/comedy with a male Sikh driving instructor and a blonde woman, two people from different cultures who find each other unexpectedly and discover lessons about life, love and of course, driving.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

 

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