There’s a place for breezy, light adult dramas, and there’s a place for adult dramas that work to stimulate an audience intellectually. Unfortunately, Learning to Drive can’t seem to decide which mode suits it better, and in the process comes out as forgettably bland.
Learning to Drive contains two interwoven plotlines. The first follows Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a literary critic who’s just been dumped by her husband after 21 years of marriage. The second follows Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh political refugee who works as a cabbie by night and a driving instructor by day. Darwan picks up Wendy and her husband just after he announces that he’s leaving her in a restaurant, and in the process of being dropped off, Wendy leaves a package in Darwan’s cab. When he returns to drop off the package, Wendy takes note of his day job, since she’s relied on public transportation and her husband to move around New York City for years.
With Darwan’s subplot, the film pokes gently at exploring some interesting issues. Darwan’s a refugee who’s in the U.S. legally, but he lives with friends who aren’t in the country legally. His one familial connection to home, his 20-something nephew, has fallen for the way things are done in America, while his sister pushes an arranged marriage with a stranger on him. In other words, Darwan has plenty going on that’s worth exploring. In that case, why is he so devoted to helping out Wendy, a woman of means who doesn’t know how to appropriately interact with the world? Fortunately, the film at least offers some semblance of an explanation, as Darwan’s calm demeanor eventually cracks and he expresses his own needs.
But it’s Wendy who gets the dominant plot, since she’s the one who is learning to drive. The lessons she learns from Darwan apply to her driving, but conveniently also double as lessons for life. Life, in this case, is one big car-driving experience. The most obvious mix of the symbolic and real comes when Wendy has to drive across a bridge for the first time, with her panic over being off the ground clearly mirroring the lack of control or direction in the rest of her life. Wendy’s story also includes the film’s odd attempts to insert material that, I assume, is aimed at a younger audience, including a discussion about blowjobs and a scene involving tantric sex. If the film maintained that tone more regularly, it might work, but it’s used so irregularly that it feels off.
Learning to Drive is ultimately harmless, with a quasi-inspirational bent. The film’s greatest problem, though, is that it seems aware it could delve deeper into its characters, begins to do so, then holds back. In some ways, that’s worse than if it failed to attempt at going deeper at all.