Often a little too “on the nose” and hitting metaphors with more vigor than a film with ambition should, Isabel Coixet’s ‘Learning to Drive” nevertheless affords a fine vehicle for its stars, Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley.
As a pair of mismatched New Yorkers, a student and teacher in the fine art of navigating that city by car, the two find the means to make the ordinary extraordinary in many scenes.
Each character climbs into the driving-school car at a critical juncture in her and his life. As a 50-something Upper West Sider, Wendy is still reeling from the collapse of her marriage of 21 years. Meanwhile Darwan, an Indian Sikh taxi driver who moonlights as a driving instructor, is on the verge of an arranged marriage.
So in the overly schematic game plan of this movie, adapted from a Katha Pollitt autobiographical essay by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (“What Lies Beneath,” “Sommersby”), each is prompted to teach the other a thing or two about Learning to Cope with critical/promising/scary situations.
There is something of an imbalance though when the movie positions Wendy as the film’s protagonist, thus never fully developing Darwan. Perhaps this stems from the two filmmakers’ determination to keep things on a feminist track.
More likely though, it has at least as much to do with the fact that neither western filmmaker (Coixet is Spanish) knew much about Indian life in America or Sikhism in general before embarking on this project.
(To that point, Darwan insists he was imprisoned in India as a “terrorist” many years before. This makes little sense within an Indian context where a Sikh, even a separatist, would never be called a terrorist.)
The film would have been much richer if Darwan’s life had been investigated with the same rigor as the woman book critic’s. Plus this might have distracted the filmmakers from over reliance on Life Lessons gained in driving instructions — keep calm, read the signs, stay focused, etc.
Clarkson has been a secret weapon for many filmmakers down through the years, an actress with a deep and abiding talent who can light up the screen in almost any kind of role, imbuing her characters with intelligence, grace, wisdom and beauty.
Here she manages to suggest more emotional depth and grief than was written into the role. She always surprises you with her choices and in every gesture, expression and line of dialogue paints a portrait of this woman on the verge of being a nervous wreck.
Similarly, Kingsley, a British actor of Indian heritage (who, of course, played Gandhi), creates a complex character out of the borderline cliche of an Indian guru. You sense a simmering rage beneath his placid surface and a yearning for real human contact despite jobs that put him into public contact daily.
Certainly the details of his cultural life — a Queens basement apartment jammed with undocumented Indians including his nephew, worship at the local gurdwara, getting his turban ready and so on — is meticulously correct. But despite this being a two-hander, he is the supporting player.
Essentially the filmmakers feel more comfortable within the confines of Wendy’s Manhattan life. The somewhat startling aspect of this though is that the movie does suggest in the loss of her equally bookish husband — he’s a professor — she is paying the price for her overwhelming love of literature.
Would that ever be suggested about a male protagonist?
The comedy is a little light but the film is not without amusing moments concerning the perilous job of teaching driving to newcomers, especially New Yorkers, the only group in American who can enter middle-age not knowing how to drive.
The scenes between Kingsley and his bride newly arrived from the Punjab, played by Sarita Choudhury, are poignant and filled with the kind of humanity one associates with Coixet’s films (“The Secret Life of Words,” “My Life Without Me”).
“Learning to Drive” contains enough fine scenes, special moments and outstanding acting to make you mildly disappointed that more wasn’t made out of this material.
Coixet, Kingsley and Clarkson worked together before in the gloomy Philip Roth adaptation, “Elegy,” and seized the chance to do so again with this film. So it’s unfortunate the movie isn’t able to break away from the familiar and take bigger risks with its characters.
Manel Ruiz shoots Darwan’s New York in different tones than Wendy’s but otherwise the cinematography is somewhat pedestrian. Beatles scion Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks play corny sitar music whenever Darwan appears on camera, another example of how the movie hues too close to the conventional.
In one of her rare non-Scorsese projects, editing champThelma Schoonmaker brings the filmic elements together with finesse but not much flair.
Opens: August 21, 2015 (Broad Green Pictures)
Production company: Broad Green Pictures/Core Pictures in association with Lavender Pictures
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Samantha Bee, John Hodgman, Matt Salinger
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriter: Sarah Kernochan
Based on the essay by: Katha Pollitt
Producers: Dana Friedman, Daniel Hammond
Executive producers: Gabriel Hammond, Dal Halsted, Jennifer Todd, Harry Patramanis,Eleni Asveta
Director of photography: Manel Ruiz
Production designer: Dania Saragovia
Music: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Costume designer: Vicki Farrell
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
R rating, 90 minutes