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Film review: Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley steer ‘Learning to Drive’

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Learning to Drive: It’s no Cadillac, but it’s as cute as a VW Bug.
Jeffrey M. Anderson

Three stars

Learning to Drive Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Learning to Drive is one of those “adult contemporary” movies that viewers of a certain age see and then sigh that they just don’t make them like that anymore. Thankfully, Spanish-born filmmaker Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me, Elegy) is a humanist with patience enough to sneak past the trappings of a marketing package, at least a little. She gives her two characters a bit of roundness, and a small puff of life, even if their narrative journey is ultimately a little too pat.

Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a New York book critic whose husband—the only licensed driver in the house—leaves her. She gets the news in the back of a cab driven by Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh on the verge of an arranged marriage. When Darwan kindly returns a package Wendy left in the back, she notices that he also gives driving lessons.

Clarkson is at her best, handling breakdowns and freak-outs, and Kingsley does another masterful Indian accent (although from a different region than Gandhi). The focus sometimes drifts away, showing Wendy talking to ghosts of her past, or underlining some anti-Middle Eastern social discrimination, but many scenes land just right. It’s no Cadillac, but it’s as cute as a VW Bug.

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