Learning to Drive

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Director Isabel Coixet’s first movie seven years ago (Elegy) dealt with a critic, and also starred Ben Kinsley. This story is about a book critic (Patricia Clarkson) and Kingsley plays a driving instructor and cabbie.

The fictional story was taken from an essay in the New Yorker about a writer breaking up with a long-time boyfriend, and learning to drive, with the help of a calm Filipino gentleman. In this, Kingsley gets his driving miss Wendy moments as a Sikh, that not only has to dodge the potholes in the road, but the many racist slurs thrown his way.

Wendy is dealing with a 20-year marriage crumbling, after husband Ted (Jake Weber), leaves her for a younger woman.

Wendy has to learn to drive because, well…no movie can be without metaphors these days. And this one drives that point home often. She also has to drive because her husband was the one that handled driving duties, and with their daughter (Grace Gummer) attending college upstate, she needs to be able to visit her.

The performances are all good. I was pleasantly surprised with Gummer, who I hated everything about in Rikki and the Flash. She is perfect in this role, with just the right amount of pain and subtlety in the performance.

We know Kingsley is one of the best actors of all time, but his character shouldn’t have been so stiff. There were also times he wasn’t very nice. I think this character needed more of a Gandhi like calmness that wasn’t quite conveyed.

Clarkson, an actress that should be a household name the way Meryl Streep is, was fine for the role. Unfortunately, it’s the script that lets her down. In one scene where she tries to seduce her husband…it’s painfully bad. Another scene has her talking to her father in the backseat of a car. It might be one of the worst scenes in a movie all year, as this imaginary figure talks about how great it would be to “live in a car.”

Since the dad split on the family, I think a much more powerful scene would’ve had Clarkson sitting in the car and listening to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on the radio.

Oh, and that scene is also problematic for another reason. Kingsley has her drive to the beach, where he goes to buy her an ice cream. They’ll then stroll on the boardwalk talking about life (and giving us exposition). Well, Darwan might be the worst driving instructor ever. You pay him for lessons, and he takes you to the beach and various other places to walk and talk. Can’t they have these conversations behind the wheel? Obviously, that doesn’t make the surroundings as nice to look at for the moviegoer, but it would make a lot more sense.

Another example of poor screenwriting is the flashbacks we get of Ted. Watching him brush his teeth with a shirt and no pants…made me think of the creepy professor (Donald Sutherland) in Animal House. We also see the clichéd scene you get so often – romantic dancing.

Now, what immediately comes to mind are the flashbacks from the movie A Single Man. Colin Firth is so devastated by the loss of his love (Mathew Goode), and when we see their flashbacks – they’re simple, but romantic. They sit on the couch together reading and sipping wine, lounging on the beach…come on. Why couldn’t they give us moments with these two characters?

Darwan is a citizen but lives in an apartment with illegal immigrants, which include his nephew Preet (Avi Nash). During one raid on their place, I thought of the much better film The Visitor. That lead me to wonder…why not make a more interesting movie about these characters?

It was interesting to learn about the Sikh customs. That might include the things Darwan did as he entered his place of warship, or simply wrapping his turban.

Watching Darwan and Wendy interact never seemed authentic, and it was rather predictable. Well, maybe not for the demographic. The old ladies sitting behind me kept guessing (out loud) what would happen, and they got everything wrong (although they loved the movie).

The plot thickens when Darwan’s relatives back home arrange a marriage. That means there’s a trip to the airport to pick up Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, in a powerfully subtle performance).

Perhaps I would’ve been moved by this couple, who seem to be complete opposites, had I not seen The House of Sand and Fog. There’s a scene in that movie where Kingsley is making love to his wife, and the way his wife lays there looking uninterested…and she pats him on the back when he’s done…is so much more interesting than this couple bickering over her not learning English or not seasoning the food properly.

There were so many scenes in this movie that were problematic. Another involves a car accident. What transpires is utterly ridiculous, especially the fact that Darwan is so upset, when it would’ve clearly been the other drivers fault for hitting them from behind.

Another cliché scene is when Wendy is set-up on a double-date that she didn’t realize would be a set-up. Of course, the guy starts gushing over her reviews and she gets all ga-ga over that.

I thought of the much more clever and funny way that was done with Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally. In fact, this entire movie could’ve probably been great if Nora Ephron were still alive to tell the story.

One scene the screening audience loved but I cringed over, had Darwan giving his bride a book of poems to read. I don’t want to spoil why the scene didn’t work, but it was awful.

Wendy’s sister Debbie (Samantha Bee of The Daily Show) breathes some life into the screenplay with a few funny scenes.

It was also enjoyable to watch Darwan and his nephew in their scenes together.

One of the songs in the movie reminded me of the sitar stylings of George Harrison. I was surprised when watching the credits, to learn that it was his son, guitarist Dhani Harrison, that provided a lot of the music.

There just wasn’t enough in this movie, but many of the scenes are pleasant enough. It’s like a Sunday afternoon when you have nothing else to do, and go on a nice drive. It’s just a shame that it was a pedestrian picture with too many bumps in the road.

The over 60 crowd will love it, so drive miss Daisy to the marigold matinee this weekend.

It gets 2 stars out of 5.





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