Synopsis: As her marriage dissolves, a Manhattan writer takes driving lessons from a Sikh instructor with marriage troubles of his own. In each other’s company they find the courage to get back on the road and the strength to take the wheel.
Release Date: September 4, 2015 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Comedy, Drama
Set in the big city of New York, Learning to Drive is about an overeducated book critic named Wendy (Patricia Clarkson from Pieces of April) and an Indian immigrant cab driver/driving instructor named Darwan (Ben Kingsley from Gandhi). One night, Darwan picks up Wendy and her husband, Ted (Dawn of the Dead‘s Jake Weber), in his cab while they are fighting. The fight ends in them separating, and Wendy’s daughter, Tasha (The Homesman‘s Grace Summer) convinces her that she needs to learn how to drive now that she can’t depend on Ted for transportation. Wendy calls Darwin and takes lessons from him, and the two become friendly. As Wendy learns to drive, she also learns many things about her new pal and confidant.
Learning to Drive was directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy) from a script that screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (What Lies Beneath) based on a New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt. The film is charming enough, with likeable characters and an interesting premise, but the story really goes nowhere. It’s basically ninety minutes of wordy conversations intercut with poorly set-up revelations about the characters. It’s a classic opposites attract story, with Wendy and Darwan not only coming from different cultural and religious backgrounds, but from different parts of the city as well. Just as Wendy’s marriage is breaking apart, Darwan enters into an arranged union with his bride Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury from Admission), a union which begins with him, through a silly series of events, having to take Wendy to the airport with him when he picks her up for their first meeting. It’s not quite as madcap as it sounds, mainly because, well, they do a lot of talking while all of this is happening.
There is a ton of symbolism in Learning to Drive. Well, actually, there’s one main symbolic theme that keeps being driven (no pun intended) into the audience’s head. The act of driving is a metaphor for independence itself; Wendy needs to learn to drive to fully gain freedom from Ted, while Darwan uses driving, both his cab and his teaching, to take time away from Jasleen. The analogy is interesting, and it gives way to the only really fun moments in the film (example: Wendy’s ex-husband’s car is towed as she is trying to seduce him, symbolizing the temporary loss of his independence as she is in control), but the driving metaphor gets old and heavy-handed after a while. And, aside from the driving metaphor, there’s nothing else clever or thoughtful about the story.
Now, Learning to Drive isn’t as bad as all of this is making it sound. It’s a brainless film, but it doesn’t feel like one, and that’s part of the problem. It pretends to be a highbrow art film, but it’s really just a movie in which nothing of substance happens. And that’s fine. It’s still somewhat fun to watch, it’s just the type of movie that meanders along until it ends, and then stays at the theater once it’s over instead of sending part of it home with the audience.
Both Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are consummate professionals, so it’s no surprise that they both give great performances in Learning to Drive. What is a bit surprising is the amount of chemistry that exists between the two of them. The pair has a cool yin-yang thing going on, her as the short-fused, fiery New Yorker and he as the calm, cool voice of reason. Also surprising is the amount of sexual tension that they emit, her being newly single and him thrust into a marriage that clearly more in his head than in his heart. There’s a fun give-and-take between them, and that’s a huge part of why they light up the screen. The pairing of Kingsley and Clarkson is easily the highlight of Learning to Drive; it’s just a shame that there isn’t more for them to do in it.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Isabel Coixet
- Producer(s): Dana FriedmanDaniel Hammond
- Screenwriter(s): Sarah Kernochan
- Cast: Ben Kingsley (Darwan)Patricia Clarkson (Wendy)Jake Weber (Ted) Grace Gummer (Tasha)Sarita Choudhury (Jasleen)Avi Nash (Preet)Daniela Lavender (Mata)Samantha Bee (Debbie)
- Editor(s): Keith Reamer
- Cinematographer: Manel Ruiz
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s): Monika Mikkelsen
- Music Score: Dhani Harrison
- Music Performed By: Paul Hicks
- Country Of Origin: USAUK