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Minimum Overdrive

Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

Learning to Drive (2015)

In the same way that the feel of an average Sundance festival film is usually apparent before the opening credits have wound up, Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" wears its origins as a New Yorker article on its sleeve. A gentle meander through the social and emotional lives of two decent middle-aged adults in a multicultural New York, it's a soft-centered comedy of manners in which understanding your wayward spouse might be less tough than grappling with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but more likely to lead to a quiet life.

In 2008 Ms. Coixet made "Elegy," a Philip Roth adaptation starring Ben Kingsley as a writer with an unfortunate shortage of self-control and Patricia Clarkson as his bedroom confident. Having clearly got on fine with both actors, she casts Mr. Kingsley again here as Darwan, a mild-mannered taxi driver and part-time driving instructor from India whose restraint never fails him, even when it reasonably might do. Hard-working and conscientious to a fault, Darwan takes on Wendy (Ms. Clarkson) as a driving student, and ends up offering a compassionate ear to her marital and family complications. Eventually she returns the favor.

In Katha Pollitt's original article the driving instructor was Filipino, so the casting of Mr. Kingsley leads to some cultural course corrections. Darwan is a Sikh, which rather overshoots the actor's own ethnicity but does allow the film to deal with broad anti-Islam aggro on the mean streets of Queens, delivered by dimwits oblivious to the distinctions. The old worry that these stories are rigged to laugh at their female characters rather than with them nags from time to time — Darwan's woes stem from principled compassion, while Wendy's involve "Sex and the City" routines such as a session of tantric sex that lasts about a week — but as always Ms. Clarkson has empathy to burn. Not everyone feels that way about Mr. Kingsley these days, although the rapport with his director remains intact and the character is a perfect fit: five-feet-eight of impenetrable multiethnic stoicism, who you would back in an instant against any New York tough measuring eight-feet-five.


Opens on Aug. 21 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Isabel Coixet; written by Sarah Kernochan; director of photography, Manel Ruiz; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks; production design by Dania Saragovia; costumes by Vicki Farrell; produced by Dana Friedman and Daniel Hammond; released by Broad Green Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Patricia Clarkson (Wendy), Ben Kingsley (Darwan), Jake Weber (Ted), Sarita Choudhury (Jasleen) and Grace Gummer (Tasha).


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