There’s a knot of tough, tender, persuasive scenes near the end of Isabel Coixet’s life-advice drama Learning to Drive. These are muscular enough that, had they come earlier, they might have powered the movie — the filmmakers’ hearts might be in the right place, but the film’s doesn’t kick in until well after you might already have declared it dead.
This is one of those stories about rebuilding after personal catastrophe. Based on Katha Pollitt’s essay about taking driving lessons after the collapse of her marriage, Learning to Drive is often listless and uninvolving, sadly stripped of Pollitt’s incisiveness — and it relies on the hokiest of dramatic tricks to suggest its lead’s inferiority.
The filmmakers try to draw us in to two New Yorks but botch the details of both: Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, the staff book critic at some Manhattan magazine, recently jilted by her husband. (The specifics have been monkeyed with so aggressively — and fruitlessly — that it would have been madness to call this character “Katha.”) Clarkson is commanding and luminous, even in stunned-breakdown mode, but even she can’t make the scenes work where she’s stuck acting against the literal ghosts of her character’s past. Wendy’s husband (Jake Weber) approaches, dreamily, in her in-traffic reverie, and later the shade of her father pops in to deliver a bonkers monologue about how nice it would be to live in a car.
Clarkson finds brittle humor in the part, and she’s moving when the script gets out of her way and just lets Wendy be. Here’s a smart woman, shocked and adrift, prone to getting lost in her own head, slow to accept what has happened to her. Wendy insists to her daughter, played by Grace Gummer, that her husband will be back, that he just gets restless every seven years — it’s left to that daughter, in a smartly understated scene, to tell Mom the truth. The clamor in Wendy’s mind is contrasted, clangingly, with the calm inside of Darwan’s (Ben Kingsley). He’s the Sikh cab driver/driving instructor whose advice for handling the road just might also (SPOILER) be advice for handling life. “The driver’s biggest problem is everyone else,” he says. “You can’t trust what they will do.”
Wendy sighs, a beat too late, “Ain’t that the truth.”
But first Darwan and Wendy must clash: “I unfriended God a long time ago,” she snaps, when he ascribes his apparent inner peacefulness to prayer. But as the movie and the lessons grind on, we discover that Darwan is unsettled, too: Exiled in America, he misses home and family, and he keeps rejecting the potential brides his relatives offer from a world away. There’s a hint of romance between Wendy and Darwan, but the film’s true interest is in cross-cultural exchange, in how much better we’d be if we’d listen to each other — as Darwan teaches Wendy to breathe and focus, to stop chatting with phantoms as she negotiates Manhattan traffic, so he must learn from her to let others into his heart.
Kingsley plays him as a saintly stiff. It’s the kind of self-consciously repressed performance that Robin Williams sometimes gave in dramas, the big-hearted fellow too noble ever to acknowledge an emotion — and it’s dull and unconvincing. At least he’s spared the ghosts-of-the-past routine, and never has to chat up painfully literal embodiments of his character’s backstory.
Early on we get a glimpse of Darwan’s home, a small Queens apartment in which a half-dozen men flop. When immigration agents burst in, toss the place, and haul two residents away, you might wonder, “Why aren’t we watching that story, rather than the one about the rattle-nerved Manhattanite too scared to drive over the Queensboro Bridge?”
That immigrant-life material is superficially more interesting than Wendy’s Bookish Manhattan of Privilege, but it’s unclear how much we should credit its accuracy — especially when the movie can’t get Wendy’s world right. A radio host asks her to name the authors she most enjoys reviewing, a question no journalist would ever ask, and she rattles off the name of Martin Amis, which suggests that maybe book-reviewing is a tenured position she got back in the early Nineties. And why does Wendy, downsizing apartments, bother to move and re-shelve her copies of 1980s P.J. O’Rourke books? During some flat scenes, I stared at her shelves, trying to work out whether the production team had just bought her books by the yard — Wendy’s oddly random collection certainly hasn’t been book-critic-curated.
Dodgy as all this is, the film improves markedly in its last third with the introduction of a new character and perspective. Just as he and Wendy seem to be considering maybe possibly smooching, Darwan must make an airport run to pick up, at last, a woman betrothed to him. Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) speaks no English, and her fear of Queens, of leaving Darwan’s garden-level apartment, is compelling. A quick, smartly framed shot of her glancing up and out a window at the sidewalk, and then looking away in disgust, proves much more powerful than all of Wendy’s ghostly confabs. But just when it figures out how to show us what’s in an interesting character’s heart, the movie is wrapping up.
Learning to Drive
Starring Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Grace Gummer, and Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Written by Sarah Kernochan. Based on an essay by Katha Pollitt. Opens Friday, September 4, at Classic Gateway Theatre (1820 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-763-7994; thegatewaytheatre.com).