Dir: Isabel Coixet. US. 2013. 90mins
In Learning To Drive, a woman gets behind the wheel of a car to rebuild her life after her husband leaves her and her Sikh taxi driver becomes her unlikely therapist in this sputtering comedy. Patricia Clarkson is a neurotic book reviewer and Ben Kingsley is a wise professor from India working below his abilities in this well-meaning intersection of two cultures in New York.
Learning To Drive, adapted from a New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt, is a screwball comedy in which almost anything goes, as long as it’s a corny observation about divorce punctuated by the din of traffic in ethnically diverse New York.
Learning To Drive seems aimed at the same market that Rob Reiner targeted in And So It Goes. The grandmotherly jokes stumble along, but the film’s mild humour could rally senior citizens who still pay to see movies in cinemas. The comedy’s appeal will be limited to English-speaking countries, and to a niche public in India, although director Isabel Coixet’s films do have an audience in Europe. Kingsley’s global appeal might give it additional legs.
Coixet (Elegy, Paris je t’aime) and writer Sarah Kernochan prepare you for limp divorce gags in the opening scene where husband Ted (Jake Weber) tells wife Wendy (Clarkson) that it’s over when she catches up to him in the back seat of a taxi. The driver is the turbaned and bearded Darwan (Kingsley), who lives with Sikh men in outer-borough Queens. Darwan turns up again at Clarkson’s brownstone to return the book that she left in his cab. He’s there again as her patient driving instructor when she swears to get behind the wheel of her derailed life.
Too many coincidences for Driving Miss Clarkson to be believable? Learning To Drive, adapted from a New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt, is a screwball comedy in which almost anything goes, as long as it’s a corny observation about divorce punctuated by the din of traffic in ethnically diverse New York.
Clarkson fits the mould of the weathered Manhattan professional woman whose marriage hits the rocks - echoing lots of Nora Ephron scripts – and her character’s awkward strategies to get her husband back or land back on her feet can make you groan.
Kingsley’s Darwan, more serene than any taxi driver working on the New York roads, embodies the immigrant challenge – dull job, nephew with a Jewish girlfriend, racist taunts from drivers who see his turban, a gamble with a mail order bride (Sarita Choudury). The virtuous stereotype to subvert more nasty stereotypes adds up to nobility in search of a punchline.
But this screwball cast is a bit old to be slipping on banana peels, so the physical comedy comes when student driver Clarkson screeches to a stop and has an accident, or when she tries sex with a bore of a man who’s at least her age. That scene stalls worse than Darwan’s taxi when it’s hit from behind.
Divorce humor and immigrant jokes (and immigrant empathy) are at 101 level here, and will seem old hat if you happen to have heard of Queens or seen a television show about the borough. Production values, even with editing from the great Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, are also in sit-com mode.
The result is still more a fender-bender than a fatal crash. These liabilities may not hurt Learning To Drive. Lines that have a younger crowd wincing could have their elders smiling, and women are likely to feel for Clarkson’s plight. Audiences may find a saint (or at least a sage) in Kingsley’s urbane and humble Darwan, and while it’s not much of a comedy if you’re under 60, it is funny enough for a public that’s been neglected at the movies.
Production company/sales: Broad Green Pictures, email@example.com
Producers: Dana Friedman, Daniel Hammond
Executive Producer: Gabriel Hammond
Screenplay: Sarah Kernochan, based on a story by Katha Pollitt
Cinematography: Manel Ruiz
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Production Designer: Dania Saragovia
Main cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury