'Learning to Drive' Producers Urge Dismissal of Former New York Times Columnist's Lawsuit

Randy Cohen, aka "The Ethicist," alleges in a defamation lawsuit that the film's trailer characterizes him as an adulterer.
Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
'Learning to Drive'

Broad Green Pictures, the financiers behind the recently released film Learning to Drive, are attempting to teach a lesson to Randy Cohen, perhaps best known for penning the New York Times "Ethicist" column for many years.

In June, Cohen filed a defamation lawsuit premised on the film's trailer. The movie, which stars Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, is based on a story in The New Yorker by Katha Pollitt, Cohen's ex-wife. According to Cohen, about 22 seconds into the trailer, the actress playing the “Katha” character says to her daughter, “Instead of buying a motorcycle, Daddy decided to give adultery a spin.”

On Friday, the producers brought a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The defendants open their brief (read here) by telling the judge, "One of the most basic requirements to a defamation claim is that the statements at issue refer to the plaintiff. In this case, Plaintiff claims that he is defamed by a trailer for the film Learning to Drive — which shows a woman named Wendy referencing a philandering ex-husband named Ted. Plaintiff claims that viewers would identify him as Ted, even though neither he nor his ex-wife is named in the trailer. Instead, Plaintiff claims the trailer is defamatory because the film it advertises is based on a New Yorker article written by his ex-wife, an article which is also never mentioned in the trailer."

In short, the producers assert that Cohen (who formerly wrote for David Letterman's late-night show) can't plausibly meet the test in defamation cases that a statement be "of and concerning" the plaintiff.

In Pollitt's article, which came out in 2002 before being optioned for a film adaptation, she writes about learning to drive at age 52 and her relationship with her driver. In the article, Pollitt discusses her ex-husband as "an excellent father" as well as another man — her lover, soul mate and "a womanizer, a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a maniac, a psychopath."

In translation from magazine article to movie, names were changed and possibly some composite characters were drawn. But the film advertises itself as "based on a true story," and so, Cohen has gone to court over the alleged suggestion that he's an adulterer. In his complaint, he also takes issue with another line of dialogue in the trailer:

The main character says, "I used to have a husband who drove ..."

A friend replies, "Ah, Ted."

The main character retorts, "Where does he find these skanks?"

The producers, represented by attorneys Katherine Bolger and Adam Lazier, pick up Cohen's acknowledgement that the "womanizer" in his ex-wife's article wasn't him.

"Because the Trailer does not mention the Article or the New Yorker, most people would not make a connection between Wendy and Ms. Pollitt, or Ted and Randy," states the dismissal motion. "And for those readers who did make that connection based on the Article, they could not believe Plaintiff was the 'dedicated philanderer' named therein because the Article itself specifically precludes that meaning."