Learning to Drive

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 21, 2015

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson star in 'Learning to Drive'
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson star in 'Learning to Drive'  (Source:Broad Green)

A fuller and more interesting title for this movie might have been "Learning to Eat, Pray, Love, and Drive Under the Tuscan Sun." But, ah well, we'll work with what we have.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy, a book reviewer who's not only paid for her work but evidently paid so well that when her cheating husband Ted (Jake Weber) files for divorce, it's he who expects alimony from her.

As her marriage is crumbling and she faces the prospect of having to sell her Manhattan home, Wendy also comes under pressure from her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) to learn how to drive so that she can visit Tasha on the farm where she's taking some time away from college. With Ted out of the picture, learning to drive would also give Wendy a measure of greater independence. With some reluctance, Wendy engages the services of Darwan (Ben Kingsley, donning an Indian accent), a Sikh immigrant who drives taxis and, in his spare time, works as a driving instructor.

Both Wendy and Darwan face hurdles on the way to fulfillment -- though, refreshingly, not with one another. Instead, Darwan agrees to an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), while Wendy dabbles in the dating scene (ending up, ironically, with a banker who practices tantric sex. "I could ejaculate on Thursday," he says, as he and Wendy try to decide on their next date after several rounds of non-ejaculatory sex. So much for pillow talk.)

The car enables Wendy to take another journey, as well -- one of forgiveness for the men in her life who have let her down, as she lapses into fantasies in which she talks things over with Ted, as well as with the father who abandoned her family when she was young.

The film focuses on the dramatic content of everyday situations -- the terror of the novice driver after dark, or in rain storms; Jasleen's culture shock and first timid steps into the wider world of the neighborhood; a few ugly incidents in which bigots taunt Darwan and mistake him for an Arab, or police officers reflexively assume him to be in the States illegally. (He's not -- but his handsome nephew is.)

Better than the plot are the characterizations, and it's here that director Isabel Coixet seems most at home. Kingsley brings solidity and presence to his role, and Clarkson is marvelous; you can't help but feel Wendy's pain, even as you meditate on the irony that in order to learn to drive, she has to do the same thing Ted claims wrecked their marriage: Focus entirely at the task at hand, blocking out all distractions. The viewer may have to do something similar to get into this slightly flat movie, a task made harder by episodes of overly-busy editing that pull the viewer out of the moment.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.