I do not like to drive; actually I am scared of driving. My father used to say being behind the wheel of a car meant that you had one foot in the grave (or was it jail?) and the other in heaven. Those words still resonate with me loud and clear - the aberrant background of my fears. On the other hand, I love to be driven around and rely on the “kindness” of friends. My greatest wish would be to have a chauffeur at my beck and call - ahhh that would be divine! So the title of director Isabel Coixet’s new lightweight comedy brought me into the theater to see LEARNING TO DRIVE.
I like Patricia Clarkson (Wendy), the heroine, an accomplished literary critic whose husband, a flat emotionless Jake Weber playing Ted the unsatisfied and straying husband, walks out on Wendy and their daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) to again fulfill his dreams/libido. LEARNING TO DRIVE becomes a metaphor for becoming self-sufficient and not needing jerks to be part of your life. Of course there is a catalyst, the wise, calm, driving instructor/life tutor, Darwan (an always wonderful Ben Kingsley) to lead her on the path to liberation; a pretty straight-forward predictable romantic tale with some detours and insights tossed into the mundane mix.
We do get to see the social inequities in life-styles between the upper class, brownstone dwelling Wendy, and Darwan, a Sikh, who lives with three other landsman in one room, sharing the little space they have with camaraderie and resignation. Darwan had been a Professor in India, but was forced to flee, receiving political asylum and becoming an American citizen, earning a living as a cabbie and driving instructor.
I was dismayed to see Patricia Clarkson in an impassioned, frenzied moment, begging her errant husband to return to the hearth. I did my usual audible moaning and groaning in the theater - not having the heart to watch these appalling scenes of desperation. I restrained myself from shouting - It will get better, girl - it will!
And it does! Meanwhile Darwan’s sister in India arranges for him to marry a middle aged woman Jasleen (a lovely Sarita Choudhury,) self-conscious and unsure of herself, having no knowledge of English, who travels to the United States, where we witness the adjustments both she and Darwan need to make in order to fuse their mutual loneliness into an affectionate, respectful relationship.
I did get a few driving tips - my goal in seeing LEARNING TO DRIVE - but none as great as the crime fiction novelist Elmore Leonard’s recommendation to never come to a stop too close to the car in front of you always leaving enough space to maneuver in case you are hemmed in - one never knows when one needs to exit quickly, particularly at night! Advice I have heeded and dispensed while sitting in the passenger seat -imperiously giving directions - having developed into an accomplished back seat driver.