Film Review – Learning to Drive
Learning to Drive
Learning to Drive (2014) is a perfectly acceptable, albeit bland comedy/drama. It’s unobtrusive and safe, with a good-natured theme of self-improvement. This is one of those instances were the plight of the characters are easily resolved and no matter what kind of hardships they go through, we never believe that they’ll fall into any real trouble. If you’re looking for a story that tries to take a risk or has the ambition to tackle its subject matter from a new angle, this isn’t the movie for you. But if you’re interested in something that goes down smoothly and doesn’t try to challenge you in any way, you might find this bit of escapism worth your while.
The main attraction is the chemistry between actors Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley. The two previously worked with each other in Elegy (2008), and return here along with the same director (Isabel Coixet). It’s clear that the two have a level of comfort together; the scenes they share are easily the best. Clarkson plays Wendy, a New York book critic currently going through the machinations of a divorce. Kingsley is Darwan, a Sikh cab driver who also provides driving lessons on the side. Their introduction is the classic Meet-Cute, where Wendy and her husband (Jake Weber) jump into Darwan’s cab right in the middle of their breakup. Through a contrived series of events, the two strike up a friendship where Darwan takes Wendy under his wing to help teach her how to drive (her husband used to do all the driving for her).
Wendy’s ability to drive symbolizing her independence and freedom is not handled with much subtlety. Sarah Kernochan’s screenplay hammers in the theme with a heavy hand. We often see Wendy relating automobiles with her family: she wants to drive to see her daughter (Grace Gummer), and has specific memories of her father that ties directly to being in a car. Her soon to be ex husband has his car conveniently towed for being illegally parked, because of course that would happen. Patricia Clarkson’s performance also nails the theme down pretty strongly. Her uneasy, neurotic portrayal of the character comes very close to exaggeration, toeing that line oh so dangerously.
Darwan is a far more interesting character, and is performed with the right subdued tone from Sir Kingsley. Darwan emigrated to the U.S. from India under political asylum, and is keenly focused on making money to help support his family in both countries. He’s a good and responsible man, but we also see him having to deal with the pressures of racism and the urging of his family to finally settle down and marry. He has to navigate the waters of both the American and Indian cultures and find the right balance between the two. It’s an interesting picture of a character, and Kernochan’s writing reveal aspects about him that we wouldn’t expect to find, which is what helps draw us to him.
Coixet’s direction mostly sits back with a standard, flat approach, and then dives off into random flights of fancy. The best scenes are when Wendy and Darwan are sitting in the car, exchanging insights into their lives and tossing around a good joke or two. Coixet allows the camera to sit back and observe the performances in a naturalistic way. But then we’ll take an awkward tangent towards areas that don’t fit with the rest of the narrative. Whenever Wendy enters a fantasy, where she’ll have conversations with people that aren’t really there, it stops the momentum dead in its tracks. These scenes appear randomly, and highlight aspects of her psyche that we were already able to figure out on our own. There’s also a strange sexual undercurrent that never really develops into anything substantial. Jokes about oral sex, close up shots of magazines showing half naked people, and a weirdly placed sex scene all contribute to this bizarre, almost surreal subtext.
The question running throughout this entire film is the obvious one: will Darwan and Wendy end up together? I’ll refrain from answering that, although the resolution was the appropriate one. Your enjoyment of Learning to Drive will depend on how much you can believe in these characters. Wendy’s emotional rollercoaster is the more challenging study to accept. Can we believe that someone who appears so successful and well adjusted turn the way she did after having her life flipped upside down? Perhaps, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples where this has actually happened. But for some reason I never truly bought into it within this context. The trajectory of Wendy’s arc and the way it’s portrayed feels like it belongs in a screwball comedy. I was far more invested in Darwin’s story and how his predicament would turn out. In the end though, the film has such a laid back, unassuming attitude that there’s no urgency to have these questions answered anyway, so la di da.