Driving, stunned mainstream-media accounts of Gen-Y tastes report, is becoming less popular. But learning how to operate a car still serves as a straightforward metaphor for accepting responsibility and acquiring new skills. So straightforward, in fact, that Learning to Drive is barely capable of a left turn.
This amiable, mostly innocuous dramedy is based on an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt, who's better known for her political writing. As adapted by scripter Sarah Kernochan, the story has become more conventional: New York literary critic Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is abandoned by her adulterous husband of 21 years (Jake Weber), who can drive. Now the unlicensed Wendy has no way of visiting their 20-ish daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), who's experimenting with rusticity in Vermont.
(In Pollitt's version, the couple was not married, and lasted only seven years.)
Sikh cabbie Darwan (Ben Kingsley) is driving Miss Wendy at the time, so he can't help but witness the couple's backseat breakup. As it happens, he's also an instructor for the Best Exotic Marigold Driving Academy. (That may not be the exact name of the school, but the beats of the story make the comparison hard to miss.) Darwan can teach Wendy how to pilot an automobile, which requires the sometimes headstrong woman to become more disciplined and attentive. And those qualities, of course, are also what she needs to lead a steadier life.
The parallels between Wendy and Darwan could hardly be tidier. He lives in a crummy group house in Queens; she has a fine home in Manhattan, but grew up in Queens. She's privileged and accepted; he's a struggling immigrant whose turban elicits taunts of "Osama! I thought we killed you!" He's about to enter a stolid arranged marriage with a woman he doesn't know (Sarita Choudhury); she's trying to win her husband back, or find a new man, both quests that lead to erotic mortification. (Wendy's misadventures, and those recounted by her sister and daughter, suggest that sex is a bad deal for women. Or at least for the kind of woman who doesn't stoop to husband-pilfering.)
Although Darwan is potentially the more interesting character, this is Wendy's story, and Clarkson's performance is central to it. As she often does, the actress endows a shallowly written role with depth and warmth, as well as some authentic dislikability. Without her, Learning to Drive would be largely mechanical.
That's unexpected, since director Isabel Coixet is not averse to eccentricity. The Spanish filmmaker has traveled the globe, working in multiple languages and producing such oddities as 2009's Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, with Rinko Kikuchi as a sexy assassin who falls in love with her designated victim. Before that, Coixet directed Elegy, a solemnly ridiculous Philip Roth-derived drama in which, yup, Kingsley played a womanizing New York literary type and Clarkson one of his casual lovers.
There's no such nuttiness in Learning to Drive, which is as conventional as a TV movie. Even the work of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's longtime cutter, doesn't lend a distinctive shape or rhythm. The film seems to take its method entirely from Darwan's quiet, methodical patter about how to move safely across lanes and through intersections. It's good advice for driving, but less helpful for drama.