A film about a wise and world-weary working man from a minority group contending with a skittish white lady in the confines of a car won a best picture Oscar in 1989. Could the “Driving Miss Daisy” formula work again?
Actually Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s endearing, mordant, and impeccably acted “Learning to Drive” has less in common with that prehistoric crowd-pleaser than with movies about women seeking a second chance, ranging from David Lean’s “Summertime” (1955) to Jonathan Demme’s latest, “Ricki and the Flash.” And, Patricia Clarkson holds her own with the stars of those films, Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep, respectively.
She plays Wendy, a New York book critic whose daughter has gone off to Vermont to be with her boyfriend. Wendy’s husband — an untenured college professor — has moved in with his new girlfriend, whom Wendy suspects to be one of his students (her identity and how it is revealed is one of many sardonic twists in the tale). So Wendy is left alone in her Manhattan apartment (if you can believe that a critic with a mooching husband and a daughter in college could afford a place on the Upper West Side). Worse, she doesn’t know how to drive, a task she assumed would be performed by her now absent family members.
Serendipitously, she encounters cab driver/student driving instructor Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh who will not only teach her to drive but also how to cope with life. For her part, Wendy helps Darwan understand women when the bride for his arranged marriage arrives.
But might not a spark of romance cross their many cultural divides?
Not to give anything away, but Clarkson and the 71-year-old Kingsley have little chemistry. Even so, the mercurial Clarkson makes up for it as she changes from dour to fiery to playful — her skipping with excitement while awaiting her driving test alone makes the movie a must-see. Plus, it is a film about a woman made by women — including the director, screenwriter, and editor (three-time Academy Award winner Thelma Schoonmaker). Maybe the Oscars this year won’t be such a boys-only club.
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Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.