Learning to Drive is Formula on Cruise Control

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Lavendar Pictures, 90 minutes, R (brief nudity)
* * *
Learning to Drive is a “small” formula picture. It has its charms, but only if you accept the idea that you’re along, so to speak, for a diverting little journey down familiar byways.

Bourgeois New York literary critic Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) is dealt a shock when her husband Ted (Jake Weber) announces his intent to leave. Ted has philandered many times in the past, but Wendy­—now on the wrong side of 50—must face the truth that he really means it this time, that divorce is likely, and a settlement will probably entail selling her comfy Manhattan home. She’s not in a good psychological space for learning to drive, something she needs to do if she wants to spend quality time with her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer), who is in ensconced in upstate Vermont trying her hand at organic farming.  

Enter Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a New York cabbie who moonlights as a driving instructor. He’s everything Wendy isn’t: calm, centered, patient, spiritual, and responsible. Darwan ekes out a downsized version of the American Dream. He was a professional in India before the post-pogrom of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination made him a prisoner/refugee. In Queens, though, he’s just another working-class foreigner.

This is a very predictable film with just two surprises, one of which centers on the relationship between Wendy and Darwan. The other is that this is an American, not a British, movie. There are so many East-meets-West themed films in Britain that the de facto genre needs a name. Conventions reign in such films: moronic nativism, cross-cultural misunderstanding, the wisdom of the East, and the revelation that we’re all alike underneath our surface differences. You’ll find all of these in Learning to Drive, plus a few diverting twists: glimpses of Sikh rituals, a few inferred foodways, and the appearance of Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) as Darwan’s family-chosen intended. Don’t expect a crash course in anthropology from any of this—you’d learn more by reading National Geographic photo captions.

There is a definite sense that director Isabel Coixet is padding the story to stretch it a respectable 90 minutes. Many of the film’s subthemes—illegal immigrants, female subcultures, the inability of Americans to tell foreigners apart—are little more than snap-ons devoid of developmental depth. Overall, Learning to Drive is a slight effort that owes whatever success it has to the performances of Clarkson and Kingsley, though I doubt either was overly taxed. Clarkson is physically and emotionally convincing as an urbane but world-weary sophisticate who realizes her head-turning beauty is fading, but knows how to present and flaunt what remains. Kingsley, of course, has the man of honor and hidden wisdom act down pat. There is strong chemistry between the two but, again, it’s probably not the kind you anticipate. If anything, though, the most important statement this film makes is something the script did not intend: both actors would be in much better films were it not for film industry ageism, sexism, and racism.

You need not ponder these things to enjoy Learning to Drive. It is what it is: a fluffy social comedy/drama hybrid. Call it an end-of-the-week-my-brain-is-shot diversion that goes down as easily as a glass of cheap, but satisfying, wine. In each case, we know we’re not dealing with vintage goods.  Rob Weir


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