Two very fine actors do what they can to enliven a bland cross-cultural bonding exercise in “Learning to Drive,” the story of a brief encounter between a Manhattan literary critic (Patricia Clarkson) and an Indian-American cab driver (Ben Kingsley) who have much to teach each other in matters of life and love. Winner of a runner-up audience prize in Toronto, this moderately likable but mostly lead-footed drama is a much more palatable effort than some of director Isabel Coixet’s recent misfires (“Another Me,” “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo”), and its star duo and easygoing premise should ensure a measure of theatrical interest. Still, as filmmaking goes, “Drive” is pretty pedestrian.
This isn’t the first time Clarkson has played a woman who finds herself drawn to a foreigner, but unlike the Egypt-set “Cairo Time,” “Learning to Drive” unfolds in present-day Manhattan, that mass-transit paradise (or hell) where one can get around easily without getting behind the wheel. But that changes for Clarkson’s Wendy Shields when Ted (Jake Weber), her husband of 21 years, tosses her aside for another woman. In addition to the unwelcome prospect of having to sell their house, a repository of memories both happy and painful (and no shortage of books), Wendy must figure out how she’s going to visit their daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), in faraway Vermont, now that she doesn’t have anyone to drive her there.
Enter Darwan (Kingsley), a cab driver who fatefully crosses paths with Wendy on the night that her marriage disintegrates. A devout Sikh who lives in cramped conditions with fellow refugees from India (some of whom, unlike him, are in the U.S. illegally), Darwan represents Wendy’s class and cultural opposite in every particular. Yet he also has a core of decency that she instinctively responds to, and soon he begins giving her driving lessons in preparation for her license exam. Wendy, whose life and work have been steeped almost entirely in words and ideas, must now shift gears (in every sense) and grapple with the practical realities of operating an automobile.
For his part, Darwan proves to be a firm, demanding teacher but also a patient and sensitive one, with a uniquely philosophical outlook on the rules of the road and a strong awareness of the self-control needed to survive, particularly for a man wearing a turban in post-9/11 America. Before too long, it becomes head-thumpingly clear that learning to drive — to change lanes, cross bridges and not hit anyone crossing the street — is in fact a loosely veiled metaphor for learning to live life with eyes wide open, and with a willingness to tackle challenging new experiences head-on.
As it is, both characters are at once intensely curious about and alarmed by each other’s life choices. Darwan shakes his head at the emotional wreckage of Wendy’s marriage and divorce, which suggest the limitations of Western individualism; still, Wendy can’t fathom Darwan’s decision, in this day and age, to enter an arranged marriage with a recent immigrant, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), whom he’s only just met. This particular development complicates the subtle yet unmistakable attraction between teacher and student, striking a rare unpredictable note in this otherwise resolutely unsurprising story.
Although it strives to maintain a fair-minded balance between its two principals, “Learning to Drive” can’t help but give Darwan the sort of respectful kid-gloves treatment that ultimately registers as condescension. Hard-working, disciplined, deeply honest and genuinely proud to dwell in the land of opportunity, Darwan at times comes across as little more than a polite amalgam of model-minority stereotypes — someone meant to show people of Arab or South Asian descent in the kindest possible light, and to elicit our pity as he endures shouts of “Osama!” and the indignities of racial profiling on a near-daily basis. It’s no stretch for Kingsley to project stiff dignity and forthrightness, but that familiarity works against him here, despite his every effort to give the character a human pulse.
Clarkson, expert at bringing authenticity to the most inauthentic material, gets to show far more range, whether her Wendy is lashing out at those who subject her driving instructor to racial profiling, or indulging a quick and sweaty fling with a random date. (Kingsley’s rigid Darwan, by contrast, seems to have no sex life to speak of, leaving unexplored the fascinating question of how he and his new bride approach the matter of intimacy.) The actors’ unforced rapport does build to a touching scene that finds both characters caught between duty and desire, resolving their dilemma with a delicacy that you wish were more in evidence elsewhere.
Manel Ruiz’s serviceable HD lensing doesn’t give ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker (taking a break between Martin Scorsese pictures) much to work with in this technically adequate but unremarkable picture.