'Learning to Drive': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
It’s not the destination, true, but this journey feels all too familiar

Ben Kingsley rides shotgun with Patricia Clarkson in the screen adaptation of a New Yorker essay

Caught in the emotional undertow of divorce, a 50-something Manhattanite determines to get her driver’s license, and she encounters all the symbolic self-empowering lessons that such a move suggests, in Learning to Drive. Katha Pollitt’s autobiographical essay transitions to the screen as a low-key but overly schematic two-hander for Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, playing odd-couple student and teacher. Clarkson’s lovely performance, far more layered than the adaptation by director Isabel Coixet and writer Sarah Kernochan, is the film’s chief pleasure.

With its softball insights about midlife reinvention and its quasi-illuminating glances across the cultural and class divide, the movie takes its place, a la the similarly contrived The Visitor, on the spectrum of It’s Never Too Late character studies. Yet however forced the drama, the sympathetic depiction of middle age could click with older audiences for a stateside distributor.

Pollitt’s first-person confessional, published in 2002 in The New Yorker, is keenly observed but also one of the political columnist’s mildest pieces. It has nonetheless been diluted for the screen, made generic — paradoxically, as the result of changes designed to heighten the drama. Turning introspective musings into a more conventional portrait of unlikely friendship, Kernochan (What Lies Beneath, 9 1/2 Weeks) has made two crucial alterations. The just-ended seven-year cohabitation is now a 21-year marriage — the better to offer familiar observations on the financial horrors of divorce. The Filipino driving instructor has been transformed into an Indian Sikh, whose harassment by racist New Yorkers provides the opportunity for topicality.

Kingsley is Darwan, the instructor who moonlights as a cabbie — or vice versa — and who, from the get-go, assumes the role of indispensable sage in the life of book critic Wendy (Clarkson). He refuses to take no for an answer when she tries to cancel her lessons and, once he’s got her behind the wheel, deploys every possible driving metaphor, starting with “read the signs.” Their relationship unfolds along obvious parallels: While she dismantles her marital home, he starts one, in a basement apartment, with his arranged bride (Sarita Choudhury).

Darwan is exacting and gently critical with Wendy, just as he is with his wife. Kingsley imbues the role with rectitude and simmering anger, but Darwan never fully comes to life; even with his backstory, he’s mainly a device for Wendy’s awakening. Other characters are barely sketched, among them Wendy’s philandering ex (Jake Weber) and her college-age daughter (Grace Gummer).

There are comic observations of life in the era of “you go, girl!” feminism (as Pollitt has called it). Least successful are a couple of sitcommy scenes with Samantha Bee as Wendy’s suburban sister. But Clarkson is terrific at capturing the quiet terror — and tantric-sex-induced fatigue — of a blind date. Even with dialogue that says precisely what it means and doesn’t always ring true, she strikes a subtle balance. She’s both focused (in Wendy’s writerly home office, a highlight of Dania Saragovia’s strong production design) and dithery (behind the wheel). It’s unfortunate that the movie adopts a tired anti-intellectual trope, the notion that Wendy is somehow paying the price for loving her work as a writer “first and foremost.”

Echoing the script’s obviousness are the Eastern-tinged melodies that play when Darwan is onscreen (the composers are Beatles scion Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks).

Coixet, who worked with her two leads on 2008’s Elegy, injects a few fantasy and memory sequences to convey Wendy’s grappling with her new aloneness. Mostly they fall flat, and the film as a whole is shot with little imagination. Editorial ace Thelma Schoonmaker, in a rare non-Scorsese big-screen project, seems to be in salvaging mode rather than putting her muscular stamp on the material. Director of photography Manel Ruiz’s most visually expressive scene is a white-knuckle journey over the Queensboro Bridge, but otherwise New York is just another undeveloped character.

Production company: Broad Green Pictures
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Samantha Bee, John Hodgman
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriter: Sarah Kernochan; based on the essay by Katha Pollitt
Producers: Dana Friedman, Daniel Hammond
Executive producer: Gabriel Hammond
Director of photography: Manel Ruiz
Production designer: Dania Saragovia
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Composers: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Sales: CAA

No MPAA rating, 90 minutes