Learning to Drive
2015, R, 90 min. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Starring Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Avi Nash, Samantha Bee.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
In daylight hours, Darwan (Kingsley) teaches student drivers. At nighttime, he navigates a cab through the anonymous crush of Manhattan. One night, he picks up a couple in mid-fight. The wife has just been informed by her husband that he is leaving her, after 21 years of marriage, for another woman. Through the rearview mirror, Darwan watches the backseat drama, pustular with years of indifference and inertia, suddenly lanced and oozing. The ugliness of the couple’s emotions is credible, but the camera – lurching into extreme close-up and counterintuitive angles – shoves your nose in it, like it’s auditioning for Dogme 95. It’s a peculiar first impression to make for what will become a composed, ultimately cheering picture of self-reinvention and unlikely camaraderie. These jagged edges don’t square with the softness that follows.
Still, there’s something to respect in the effort to get at that jaggedness. Inspired by an essay by the feminist writer, poet, and activist Katha Pollitt and adapted by Sarah Kernochan (I fondly recall testing a VHS tape’s durability with overplay of her romping George Sand romance Impromptu), Learning to Drive doesn’t skitter past the decimation this breakup has caused to Wendy (Clarkson), the wife drop-kicked to the curb from Darwan’s cab. A respected book critic and the breadwinner of the family, Wendy is loudly opting out of any bullshit conscious uncoupling. She bad-mouths her ex to their college-aged daughter (Gummer) and throws a fit when the lawyer says she’ll have to sell the house. The magisterial Clarkson – so often tasked with playing the coolest head in the room – has learned how to master a great blue vein in her forehead. How hard it pulses becomes the film’s unique weather-alert system, warning of rage with a shower of self-pity in the immediate forecast.
Darwan and Wendy start the film on separate tracks, meet up in the cab, and continue in parallel as Darwan teaches Wendy to drive. Their separate lives are efficiently but effectively detailed – Wendy’s long, step-by-step slough toward divorce; the racism Darwan, a naturalized American citizen and Sikh, suffers daily, and the efforts of his sister back home in India to arrange a marriage for him. (Kingsley flourishes here, reuniting with the director and co-star of 2008’s Philip Roth adaptation Elegy, one of the last times a movie gave the Oscar-winning actor something legitimately interesting to do.) Darwan and Wendy’s time together in the car benefits from having more than one thing happening at once, for the same reason actors so often like to have something to do with their hands while delivering dialogue; soul-baring plays more naturalistically when you’re simultaneously fiddling with the turn signal.
Naturalism isn’t always what director Isabel Coixet is going for. She inserts fantasy intermezzos, including imagined encounters with Wendy’s ex and her absent father, but these are stagnant moments that only reiterate what has already been plainly established. (What’s missing is the cinematic romanticism Coixet evinced in another daydream – this one set at a supermarket and scored to Gino Paoli’s “Senza Fine” – in her very fine 2003 film My Life Without Me.) The comedy, when forced, can be embarrassing. There’s a joke about blow jobs being, y’know, jobs that seems to have zero self-awareness that it’s the 97 gajillionth time someone has made that particular joke. But the actors – with their cozy rapport and facility for broad and subtle alike – sell the mom humor, and the film’s more incisive observations, too. By the end, I was moved. Not floored, but moved.