The opening scene is priceless, and just as the taxi drivers in New York have no idea what to expect when they pick up a fare, so we encounter unexpected turns of events in Learning to Drive. Wendy (Clarkson) becomes hysterical when her husband tells her he is leaving her (at a restaurant, no less!), and he bolts, with her right behind him. When he boards Darwan’s (Kingsley) taxi, she jumps in on the other side and gives him hell. Where do we go from here?
One pathway follows Wendy as she goes through stages of adjustment trying to redefine herself. We feel her heartbreak (Clarkson is such a good actress!), and are encouraged by her resolve to learn to drive as one small step. By chance, Darwan, who took her home that evening, is a driving instructor in the daytime, and when Wendy finds that out later, after her daughter (Gummer) urges her to learn to drive and visit her in Vermont, she relents and makes an appointment with Darwan.
What follows are cuts between Wendy’s life and her journey and Darwan’s who has his own issues to deal with. Darwan is a Sikh, and his sister in India is trying to match him up with a wife. Their stories, which touch on immigration, American xenophobia, marital infidelity, and road rage give the film more depth than we expect in a simple romantic comedy.
Probably its strongest asset is its window into multiculturalism and all that involves. A vivid scene is Wendy’s long drive to Queens, a place she worked very hard to escape and Darwan worked very hard to get in. Their differences are highlighted in Wendy’s manifestation of a liberated American woman using foul language, aggression, and wit contrasted with Darwan’s patient, traditional, ordered, polite mien. The beauty—and the point of the story—is each becoming able to appreciate the value of the other.
Clarkson and Kingsley are gifted actors who can bring to life any character they play, and when they’re together, the result is electric. Gummer is proving that she has a good share of her mother’s (Meryl Streep) genes in this cameo role (not that she hasn’t had to do something with them!). I was gratified in seeing “The Daily Show” alums Samantha Bee and John Hodgman spice up the humor with their portrayal of supporting figures.
I like this film even more in the process of writing this review, and will keep an eye out for more from director Isabel Coixet and writer Sarah Kernochan.
Don’t miss the agony of heartbreak, the rich multiculturalism, and satisfying resolution in this romantic comedy.