Wendy’s (Patricia Clarkson) marriage is falling apart. Her husband (Jake Weber) has fallen in love with somebody else and cheated on her. In the middle of a divorce, Wendy finds it hard to let go, move on and try new things. Chastised for not knowing how to drive by her daughter (Grace Gummer), Wendy picks up driving lessons with Sikh instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley). In his company, the two help each other navigate their personal lives as well as two varying perspectives on love as well as helping one another move on to the next stage of their lives.
Learning to Drive is a simple, sweet kind of story that establishes a relationship between strangers that is occasionally heartfelt and somewhat genuine, but cannot, pardon the pun, steer itself in the right direction. There are a lot of story threads that are inserted throughout to make the film more realistic and most probably for character study or sympathy, but they don’t work and become a hindrance that stops the film from being a more profound and emotionally rich story. Directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy, which also starred Kingsley) with a screenplay by Sarah Kernochan (What Lies Beneath), the film is haphazard and the characters’ separate lives are not explored enough for the impact of their relationship with each other to ultimately take hold.
The film, which has Ben Kingsley playing a Sikh man, takes up time in several scenes to showcase the apparent and awful racism he faces–when Wendy causes an accident he’s asked by the cops where he’s from, twice, for no apparent reason than to throw it out there unnecessarily. This is not to say that some people say and think awful things about minorities and people from other cultures, but the way it is represented here doesn’t ring true and also doesn’t hold any relevance to the overall story. This holds true for several other issues as well, like Darwan’s background story, the moments between the characters that are meant to draw them closer together, but don’t. Oftentimes, the movie oversimplifies things and events, but why throw them in there if they’re not going to be fleshed out properly?
Kingsley and Clarkson have believable chemistry and play most of their scenes nicely, but there is just something that never completely clicks about their friendship. The film toys with the idea of making them more than that, but since the friendship is never completely cemented, there’s nothing to really go off of. The mother-daughter relationship between Clarkson and Grace Gummer might as well have not been in the movie as it doesn’t add anything to it. Gummer, a fine actress, has such a small role that if you blink you might miss her. While there are a few genuinely funny moments, Learning to Drive isn’t the feel-good comedy it’s meant to be.
Release Date: September 4, 2015 | Director: Isabel Coixet | Screenwriter: Sarah Kernochan | Cast: Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber | Genre: Comedy | MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content