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.