Learning to Drive is director Isabel Coixet’s second straight film about a professional critic’s life being thrown into disarray. In 2008’s Elegy, a cultural critic, played by Ben Kingsley, becomes sexually possessive over a student after years of generally maintaining distant, physical relationships with lovers. That film, adapted from a novella by Phillip Roth, aspired to understand sexual desire from within by affording its protagonists the space to explore their passions without conventionalizing their pursuits. With Learning to Drive, that approach is all but wholly reversed, since Coixet establishes the film’s titular metaphor early on and, instead of using it as a means to seek deeper, darker ends, proceeds to restate it over and over again, resolving the narrative with a closing scene that predictably, and affirmatively, concludes the title’s ongoing action.
In the opening minutes, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh driving instructor who moonlights as a cabbie, tells a young student that “driving is a freedom, as long as you don’t hurt someone.” The film takes that message to heart and deploys it in a number of ways, but primarily with Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a Manhattan-based book critic who’s forced to take driving lessons after her longtime, unfaithful husband (Jake Weber) walks out on her. For the bulk of her professional and domestic life, she’s kept nearly everyone at a distance, including her husband and daughter (Grace Gummer), who appear throughout the film less as characters than passing reminders of Wendy’s recurring failures as a wife and mother. This is yet another film where being a critic of some kind entails a coldness and active displeasure with those around her. Instead of interrogating that impulse as something valid or, more provocatively, suggesting Wendy’s critical distance to be a potential source of positivity, Learning to Drive insists on becoming a 90-minute therapy session for the wound-too-tight character. Once Wendy discovers that her husband’s been cheating on her, it’s not so much a stunning revelation as a confirmation that she’s “only trained to do one trick: ignore everything and everyone around me,” as she will later state. The statement follows a failed driving test, which Darwan has been prepping her for between explaining his past as a professor during walks at the pier, and attempting to set up an arranged marriage for himself with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a woman he’s never met.
As Learning to Drive wears on, its tank hits empty quickly, consistently failing to cull hard-earned significance from either protagonist’s plight. That’s in part because too many scenes are walk-and-talk snoozers meant to tritely establish further exposition, which includes a few convos with Debbie (Samantha Bee), a thankless BFF whose sole existence is to ask the questions writer Sarah Kernochan couldn’t make implicit. In the film’s most heated scene, Wendy accidentally plunks a parked car while driving in the rain during a lesson, causing the offended driver to lash out at Darwan, calling him a “stupid fucking Arab asshole” and ripping his turban off. Wendy, appalled, hops from the car and says to an investigating officer, “I have two words for you: racial profiling.” Instead of using this hoary moment as a means to contemplate Wendy’s privileged calling of racism, Coixet flatly aborts the scene before any real drama or intrigue manifests beyond the most explicit hurling of epithets. Such a drive-by approach encapsulates Learning to Drive as a whole; when Wendy’s shit-eating, mission-accomplished grin appears just before the final credits, you may find yourself wishing the filmmakers had the nerve to give her a flat.