Nine years is along time to invest in making a film. Often those efforts pay off handsomely, as in "Moneyball", for example, which took Brad Pitt eons to get to the silver screen. The latest sojourn by producer Dana Friedman and star Patricia Clarkson, based on a New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt, "Learning To Drive", is a movie close to the heart of everyone involved.
Written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by Isabel Coixet, Pollitt's piece about her own experience as a 40-something New Yorker finally learning to navigate an automobile is about a lot more than just conquering a new task.
Clarkson portrays Wendy, a devoted book critic, so immersed in her work that she doesn't notice that her husband Ted (Jake Weber --- Patricia Arquette's husband on the TV series "Medium") has become disillusioned and bored --- and has moved on to someone else. When he abruptly announces he's leaving her, and they flee a NYC restaurant, together they end up in a taxi driven by Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley).
New York provides the perfect backdrop for this illuminating tale of two very different individuals, Wendy and Darwan, forming a cross-cultural, meaningful relationship. Darwan is a Sikh Indian, like many drivers of New York's cabs/limos. During the day he teaches at a driving school, and his patience is infinite.
Following Ted's departure, their only daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer --- yes, Meryl Streep's other daughter) prevails upon Wendy to learn to drive so she can visit Tasha in Vermont. Darwan becomes her instructor, and a bond develops which provides both Wendy and Darwan with new insights into their respective lives.
The best part of independent films such as "Learning To Drive" is the intelligence of the script. Though Kernochan was tasked with taking an essay and turning it into a screenplay, the storyline and dialogue remain true to the original thoughts in Pollitt's soul-searching article about divorce and re-negotiating one's way. There's also a good deal of humor --- Wendy experiencing sex for the first time after her divorce with a self-proclaimed yogi who doesn't ejaculate comes to mind.
Coixet has Clarkson and Kingsley literally driving this delightful and thought-provoking movie. Kingsley is the personification of Zen, both on-screen and in person. He and Clarkson made a surprise appearance at our screening, and he truly embodies all of the impressive qualities he demonstrates in his movie roles.
Kingsley had a Sikh driver on the film set for "Gandhi", a man whom he admired. He used his memories of him, and other taxi drivers he met in New York, to shape Darwan. While filming in his Sikh headdress and beard, Kingsley endured racial slurs, cementing his solidarity with these immigrants.
Clarkson and Kingsley have worked together several times, and Clarkson was, of course, eager to have Kingsley play Darwan. They mesh perfectly together, and Clarkson is as strong and magical as always. I absolutely love her screen presence, whether she is bedraggled in tears or ethereal, sitting behind the wheel of a car.
"Learning To Drive" boasts a solid cast, which also includes Sarita Choudhury, as Darwan's arranged wife. Choudhury wanted to work with Coixet so badly that she offered to fetch coffee on the set if she didn't get the part.
Though David, who usually loves this type of film as much as I, was not as enamored with "Learning To Drive", for me it is a rare summer gem. Some have cautioned that it is light in substance --- a total untruth. "Learning To Drive" is superbly written, acted and directed.
Opinion: See It Now!
"Learning To Drive" is ostensibly a comedy about a middle-aged woman striving to get her first driver's license. But dig a little deeper, and we find an entertaining nugget of a film that examines friendship and self-awareness represented in two very different cultures.
It's a film that was years in the making, but thanks to persistence by co-producer Dana Freidman and star Patricia Clarkson, "Learning To Drive" is a reality. If there is a moral to this story, based on an original essay in New Yorker magazine by Katha Pollitt, it is this: we can be all wrapped up in our work, our passions, our obsessions, but we should not neglect family and friends.
Wendy (Clarkson) has just experienced her husband of many years walking out on her, to be with another woman. She is a well-known book critic in New York City, but her passion for reading and her career have pushed her husband and her grown daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer) into the background. Without her husband to drive her around, and to placate her daughter, Wendy hires a Sikh taxi driver named Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley), who also teaches at a driving school, to help her pass her driver's test.
Clarkson brings a realism to her role with which women in her situation will certainly identify. She is appropriately seething at having to give up her home in a divorce settlement. She is reluctant to be fixed up on a blind date by her sister, Debbie (Samantha Bee, late of "The Daily Show"), although the end result of that date should have moviegoers scrambling to their computers to Google "tantric sex".
Wendy is both amusing and sympathetic in her efforts to learn to negotiate traffic in the Big Apple. Darwan's first admonition is always for Wendy to put on her seat belt, then adjust the mirrors, and finally to accelerate ever so slowly. Kingsley's quiet, calm approach to his performance is in direct contrast to Wendy's frenetic nature. But somehow their relationship evolves into a deep friendship, even as Darwan would like it to be more.
I can't think of any other actor who could play Darwan so effectively. Kingsley's character is a good man, so much so that Wendy, although drawn to him as a friend, cannot see him as a romantic partner, but more importantly as "her faith". Darwan refuses money from Wendy more often than he accepts it, despite the fact he lives in a small apartment with his nephew Preet (Avi Nash) and other undocumented Sikh men. Darwan also desires to be married some day, so accumulating money is important to him in that regard.
When Darwan's dream of a marital union is finally fulfilled in an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, excellent), his new wife is unhappy and alone in a strange environment. Darwan works day and night to make money, but he doesn't realize his choices prevent him from developing intimacy with Jasleen. Thus, the parallel between Darwan and Wendy's approach to life is clear, and their accidental meeting promises to be a positive influence on their respective futures.
Director Isabel Coixet smartly focuses the majority of "Learning To Drive" on its two stars. Indeed, one third of the film is comprised of Wendy and Darwan in a car. The supporting roles involving Tasha, Debbie and Wendy's ex, Ted (Jake Weber) are almost superfluous. But the simple byplay between Wendy and Darwan is a meaningful plot driver.
Screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (she wrote the much underrated thriller "What Lies Beneath") touches briefly on (1) racial profiling (a cop gives Darwan a hard time after a fender bender caused by Wendy), (2) prejudice (two young men taunt Darwan by calling him Osama), and (3) extreme prejudice (the other driver in the accident rips off Darwan's turban in anger).
One brief segment in the film takes place at a radio station. Wendy, along with two other critics, are being interviewed to answer the question "are critics really necessary?" This brought a reaction from CFCA members in the first row, but unfortunately, the scene was very brief.
On a side note, Kingsley, in a recent interview, recounts the true story of Sikh taxi drivers in NYC, after the 9/11 attacks, turning off their meters and driving people to their destinations. He also talks about Sikhs at the forefront of assisting victims of Hurricane Sandy. "Learning To Drive" is a pleasant story that demonstrates, despite the vast differences between Wendy and Darwan's cultures, they have quite a lot in common.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!