Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Movie Review #316: "Learning to Drive" (2015)

Movie"Learning to Drive"
Ticket Price: $7.00
Director: Isabel Coixet
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Image Source
After literary critic Wendy's (Patricia Clarkson) husband leaves her for another woman, she is forced to make many changes to her life, one of which is finally learning how to drive with the help of driver instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley). They two begin an unlikely friendship where they discuss their lives and relationships to each other.

If we had a dollar for every time the city of New York was alluded to as being a "character" in a film, we'd be rolling in moolah.

"Learning to Drive" stars one of our favorite actors, Ben Kingsley, so I was immediately interested in seeing this film. Really, he can do no wrong in our eyes and has continued to impress us, even in mediocre movies, time and time again. I also really like Patricia Clarkson as an actress, so watching them team up should have been a treat. While this movie is not bad, it's also not that great, either. It's got an interesting enough premise, but the execution is rather sloppy and we can't help but feel like we have seen this story told a billion times before in other better films. An unlikely duo of strangers pair up in some way, shape or form and begin a friendship, pushing past their cultural differences to teach one another how to do some thing, shape, or form. Here, after she gets blindsided by her husband wanting a divorce, Wendy, played by Clarkson, is ready to fall apart. The night of their breakup, she gets driven home in a cab by Darwan, played by Kingsley, and after leaving something in his car, she finds out he's a driving instructor. Driving is something she's always wanted to learn to do, but has never needed to do since she lives in New York City with all its subways, buses, and taxis. There are some slight romantic inklings between the two after a while, though Darwan is betrothed to a woman he has never met that was picked out for him by his sister in India in the style of an arranged marriage. As Wendy picks up the pieces of her shattered life and relationships mid-divorce, Darwan must learn to live with a woman he really knows nothing about, yet longs to continue teaching Wendy at the same time.

The majority of the problems in "Learning to Drive" have little to do with the acting, which boasts some excellent performances by both Clarkson, the fragile but angry book critic, and Kingsley, the good-natured, shy and devout cab driver who is simply trying to keep his cool in a city where he is mistaken for something he is not. The problems stem from its disjointedness. Though Wendy and Darwan are both explored as characters individually and separately, the other characters around them have little to no development whatsoever. For example, Wendy and her ex-husband have a daughter named Tasha, played by Grace Gummer, who is rarely in the film apart from two scenes to express her interest in dropping out of school in order to farm in Vermont??? What?? So hipster, so New York. It's as if Tasha is pointless other than being a minor catalyst to help Wendy get her driver's license and learn to drive (which she probably should have done anyways). In fact, most of the characters who are involved in Wendy's life other than Darwan are either underdeveloped or introduced only to disappear after a scene or two, and this includes her sister Debbie, played by Samantha Bee. In between these random character introductions are a series of Wendy's daydream fantasies as she talks to people in her life past and present, like her husband or her dad. These interludes are sort of a "trick" of the indie film genre. Since Wendy is a book critic, we are to assume she has an active imagination, but really, these random scenes feel more like someone retelling how their therapy session went. While these sidebar interludes do work on occasion, here, we found them to be distracting as they interfered with the flow of the film. Many of them just seemed out of place and unnecessary.

All in all, we cannot wholly recommend "Learning to Drive" to everyone because of its often ambiguous, random characters, its overly mature and New York specific themes, and its metaphors galore for taking risks and starting over. Though it does have some good performances by some really terrific actors, it's simply not enough. To say there is no conflict or drama in this film is a misnomer because there's a lot of it, it's just mixed with honking horns, weird side fantasies, and an upper-crusty feel. We wish there had been more to it than what we were given.

My Rating: 6/10
BigJ's Rating: 6/10
IMDB's Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 67%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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