James Clay // Film Critic
There hasn’t been a script out this year that is as on the nose as LEARNING TO DRIVE, filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s comedy that has the slightest bit of dramatic tendencies that are nothing short of pedestrian at every turn. The film does have its virtues in its leading cast Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, who often have an affable report, but their gentle humor doesn’t have anything on the high-octane crew of FURIOUS7.
I’m kidding of course, although screenwriter Sarah Kernochan’s script could have used some extra seasoning to add some layers to her already template characters. Imploding after her philandering husband (Jake Weber) runs away with another woman, Manhattan book critic Wendy (Clarkson) is floundering out of control emotionally, but by happenstance she comes into contact with the zen master of driving, Darwan (Kingsley), who teaches her that it’s never too late to start over.
The tagline on the poster reads “It’s never too late to begin a new adventure,” but my question is why do new beginnings and the demise of complacency have to come at the hand of a cheating spouse? Nobody has to be the bad guy in this situation, just ask Diablo Cody and the work she did with RICKI & THE FLASH, or one of the best films of the year I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. Those films had character, and LEARNING TO DRIVE basically takes the Hollywood blueprint about what a film about new beginnings should be and turns it into a Happy Meal that has been replicated umpteen times over.
Darwan thankfully is a near fleshed out character with his own motivations that (for most of the film) exceed trying to save the upper-middle class white lady. Until one fleeting moment in the film ruins everything Kenochan has put into motion. That is in part because Kingsley is a master of his craft and has ethnic backgrounds to India, so it’s understood he knows this culture inside and out. Maybe I’m missing something and possibly in the wrong for ripping LEARNING TO DRIVE a new exhaust pipe, but when you attempt to forge a relationship with two unlikely people from different social standings, be aware of what motivations lie ahead.
All the while, Wendy is trying to go through her divorce and figure out what her next move is going to be. Darwan is settling into an arranged marriage with a woman his family chose from India named Jasleen (in a believable performance by Sarita Choudhury), as a woman terrified to assimilate to American culture (and rightfully so; Queens is a scary place).
Coixet has SOME things things to say about social issues that remain true today, such as racial profiling of Middle-Eastern immigrants and even at times gender roles, but the two A-stories (Wendy and Darwan) never intersect in a way that is meaningful to develop the narrative structure. At a brisk 90 minutes, it feels like there are 15-20 minutes left out of the film which would have helped matters desperately. Most notably Wendy has a daughter named Tasha (Grace Gummer) who has two measly scenes. It’s a shame because Gummer shows tons of talent in her fleeting moments. That could be because she is the daughter of living legend Meryl Streep.
No point in going on further about LEARNING TO DRIVE, it’s by no means a complete bust. This is one of those cases when you are frankly disappointed that the film didn’t rise about and complete a three-point turn, even though those odds were narrow to begin with. Personally, don’t waste the effort. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS and RICKI & THE FLASH are two far superior films of this ilk.
LEARNING TO DRIVE crashes into theaters today.