Movie Review: Learning to Drive

Wendy (played by Patricia Clarkson), a writer with a crumbling marriage, decides to gain an upper hand on her shaky existence by taking driving lessons. Her teacher, a Sikh cab driver named Darwan (played by Ben Kingsley), is stern but compassionate and the two to find common ground, as both have uneasy personal lives.

Here’s a predictable romantic comedy that presents an obvious connection between driving instructions and marital advice. This quality is so on-the-nose and cornball, it’s amazing that Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson are the film’s stars.

Both leads invest feeling and dignity into their portrayals but the movie doesn’t deserve them. Playing a Sikh, Kingsley gives exactly the performance you’d expect from him- committed, heartfelt and respectful. Clarkson brings emotional weight to a woman in free fall, but she’s been better and given far richer performances elsewhere. Although surprisingly crass, “Learning to Drive” does contains a ripe commentary on the daily prejudice Kingsley’s character faces daily.

I had the pleasure of seeing the film at this year’s Maui Film Festival, under the open sky at the Celestial Cinema. That setting makes almost any film shown there an event, though this pleasant but unexceptional work has mostly faded from memory. The life lessons that ensue are nice but tired and seen-it-before. The presence of two great actors are the sole component that rises this above the level of the average Lifetime TV movie.

The scenes of Darwan dealing with his new bride (played by Sarita Choudhury, the dazzling star of “Mississippi Masala”) are the film’s most compelling . I would have liked more scenes with Jake Weber, playing Clarkson’s husband, who resists her pleas for another chance; their moments together sting. Weber, who I always remember playing the “villain” in “Meet Joe Black,” brings depth to his small supporting turn.

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The recent, far fluffier “The intern” is actually a better, if equally disposable, comedy for grown-ups. The smart quality both films share is resisting the temptation to make the attraction between the two characters more than plutonic. Whereas most Hollywood movies are all too happy to have their attractive leads tumble into bed together, more astute films understand the value and realities of unique friendships. In a different movie, Clarkson and Kingsley could feasibly play lovers but here, the emphasis is on mutual understanding and trust.

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Clarkson and Kingsley made me care about their characters but they can’t completely elevate such a flimsy movie with such an obvious, by-the-numbers message. Reportedly, this was a labor of love for both actors and a project both pursued for some time. I’m glad they worked together and hope they do so again. Yet, “Learning to Drive” is a strong choice as an in-flight movie but not remarkable down at ground level.

Here’s a character-driven comedy that has its heart in the right place but fails to inject new life into a routine narrative about life lessons on the road.

Two Stars

This is occasionally genuine, but mostly sitcom-ready.

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