One suspects that “Driving Miss Daisy” was on the mind of Sarah Kernochan when she wrote the script of Isabel Coixet’s innocuous crowd-pleaser, even if it was based on an autobiographical essay by Katha Pollitt. Though both leads are in the front seat of the car this time, they play out the same sort of sweetly cross-cultural friendship dance that Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman did that popular film.
Patricia Clarkson is Wendy Shields, a New York literary critic who first encounters Indian cabbie Darwan (Ben Kingsley) on the fateful night that she’s dumped by her husband Ted (Jake Weber). As the couple argue in the back of the car on their way home—with Wendy alternately bawling and berating Ted—Darwan listens to the painful exchange with obvious discomfort. Ted finally just gets out of the cab, leaving Darwan to drive the weeping woman home.
Later, however, he discovers that she’s left her purse behind, and so the next day he stops at her house to return it. She’s still in crisis, and after her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer), who’s living on a farm in Vermont drops by for a visit, she realizes that she’ll have a difficult time travelling there to visit, since she can’t drive, having left that up to Ted. So she gets in touch with Darwan, who has a second job as a driving instructor.
What follows is fairly predictable: over the course of their rides, during which Wendy is the nervous Nelly and Darwan the calm but insistent instructor, the two grow increasingly friendly, with a hint of romantic attraction arising between them. But happily the script doesn’t go all the way in that direction, though it does opt for one especially obvious choice when Wendy responds to hostile remarks tossed at the turbaned Darwan by some xenophobic pedestrians. Instead it allows Wendy to exact a modicum of revenge on Ted when he drops by to collect some of his stuff from the house, and inserts a subsidiary plot about an arranged marriage for Darwan with a newcomer named Jasleen (Sarita Choudbury)—something Wendy can’t understand—and the complications that his new, traditional wife, who’s initially leery over the challenge of Americanization, brings into his life.
But in the end the film can’t escape a prefabricated feel, especially in the sequence in which Wendy is thrown into panic mode when Darwan insists that she drive over the Queensboro Bridge. She’s terrified of bridges, you see (which would seem to preclude any chance of her ever being about to drive to Vermont to visit Tasha)—which is just another way of saying that the coolly rational woman is frightened of making connections with others on a human level, an emotional problem that the driving lessons (or more precisely getting to know Darwan) eventually overcome.
Still, though the material may be prosaic, Clarkson, as usual, invests her role with more layers that the writing affords. Kingsley isn’t quite so fortunate. He’s trapped into just playing a more modern variant of his stoic Gandhi template, and though he’s a past master at it, the character ends up feeling two-dimensional. Everyone else is practically an afterthought. Weber and Gummer have what amount to little more than cameos, and Samantha Bee shows up briefly as Wendy’s sister, who arranges a date for her that doesn’t crash but winds up ambiguously anyway. (To add to the “Daily Show” vibe, John Hodgman makes an appearance as a car salesman, too.) In fact the most interesting supporting character by far is Choudhury’s Jasleen, whose woman-lost-in-a-new-world persona could easily have been the center of a different, better narrative. Another character that might have been made more of is the city itself, which is prosaically treated in Manel Ruiz’s cinematography. The interiors fare better, courtesy of production designer Dana Saragovia.
“Learning to Drive” is an ironically pedestrian movie that doesn’t go anywhere adventurous, but the two lead passengers –and Clarkson in particular—make it a more agreeable journey than it otherwise would have been.