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'Learning to Drive' never quite moves out of the slow lane

"Learning to Drive" - A few decades ago on a stressful July morning in Upstate New York, a kind - and somewhat blind and apathetic - soul ignored my obvious mistakes and gave me a passing grade on my driver’s test. As a 16-year-old kid with the sudden sensation of obvious freedom and a driver’s license in hand, I knew the exciting prospects of adulthood were just around the nearest corner.

My experience is a typical blueprint for most people, but in the romantic comedy “Learning to Drive”, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) - a smart and successful book critic in her 50s – never earned her license. A lifelong New Yorker, she relies on taxis, buses and the subway to get from here to there, but most of all, she depends on her husband of 21 years for transportation as well. Unfortunately, Ted (Jake Weber) cheats on her and wants a divorce, and an emotionally bruised and vulnerable Wendy is now learning how to fend for herself in life and turns to a driving instructor, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), to fend for herself on paved roadways.

With two exceptional lead actors, Clarkson and Kingsley, front and center in a very character-driven story - and with a definite indie look-and-feel - “Learning to Drive” has all the potential to charm and connect with an audience wanting to see two people bond via friendship or romance. Regrettably, the movie does not reach its potential.

With Wendy’s shaken confidence and Darwan’s gentle persona, they are two likable characters who are easy to support, and their driving lesson scenes are the film’s most endearing. Wendy is vastly unsure of herself behind the wheel, but also carries 21 years (consisting of three “seven-year itches”) of baggage. This makes learning how to drive difficult for Wendy, and many well-timed comedic moments play off this dynamic.

For instance, when Wendy becomes frustrated, Darwan - in the most deadpan of tones - says, “I think it’s time to discuss road rage.”

Darwan, a Sikh with political asylum from India, runs his life in a deadpan state as well. A caring person with a razor sharp intellect, but not well-versed in social graces or affairs of the heart, he carries empathy for Wendy - and other stronger emotions - just beneath the surface. Not unlike a best friend who does not know how to say “I’m sorry” or a middle-aged father who cannot articulate “I love you”, Darwan has difficulty verbalizing his feelings. Thankfully, his left-brain skillset stand tall, and the words “Seatbelt first” and “The driver’s biggest problem is everyone else” flow effortlessly.

On the other hand, with Wendy’s exposed state, her cynicism-quotient runs higher than an air-conditioning technician on a sizzling 4th of July weekend. Clarkson is effective in drawing sympathy to Wendy’s plight, and her efforts help attract a nice on-screen human connection to Kingsley’s Darwan.

All in all, many effective and rich scenes bring some entertaining individual moments. The problem is the picture’s overall story arc just feels too lightweight. Wendy’s struggle behind the wheel is supposedly real, but after a while, it does not feel realistic. After a several lessons, the driving scenes become repetitive. As an audience member, after about 60 movie minutes, I felt impatient with Wendy’s lack of progress on the road. Certainly, Wendy is a capable person and should be able to drive on bridges or obey traffic signs after seemingly weeks of instructions, however her improvement is slow.

In turn, the movie moves slowly, and an 85-minute film seems like two hours. Since it nudges at a “Road Under Construction” pace, the singular plot point to bring these two characters together feels forced and manufactured. Wendy and Darwan are continually affable, so we play along, but we secretly wish for a story with denser material. The aforementioned individual moments do not ultimately add up to a satisfying movie experience. In fact, while fully expecting to see the film’s ultimate functional payoff (Wendy’s specific driving goal), I came away feeling a bit cheated. “Learning to Drive” is a fairly pleasant ride, but you will not leave the theatre feeling like you just passed your driver’s test. (2/4 stars)

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