There's a knot of tough, tender, persuasive scenes near the end of Isabel Coixet's life-advice drama Learning to Drive. These are muscular enough that, had they come earlier, they might have powered the movie -- the filmmakers' hearts might be in the right place, but the film's doesn't kick in until well after you might already have declared it dead.
This is one of those stories about rebuilding after personal catastrophe. Based on Katha Pollitt's essay about taking driving lessons after the collapse of her marriage, Learning to Drive is often listless and uninvolving, sadly stripped of Pollitt's incisiveness.
The filmmakers try to draw us in to two New Yorks but botch the details of both: Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, the staff book critic at some Manhattan magazine, recently jilted by her husband. Clarkson is commanding and luminous, even in stunned-breakdown mode, but even she can't make the scenes work where she's stuck acting against the literal ghosts of her character's past.
The clamor in Wendy's mind is contrasted, clangingly, with the calm inside of Darwan's (Ben Kingsley). He's the Sikh cab driver/driving instructor whose advice for handling the road just might also (SPOILER) be advice for handling life. "The driver's biggest problem is everyone else," he says. "You can't trust what they will do."
Wendy sighs, a beat too late, "Ain't that the truth."
Kingsley plays Darwan as a saintly stiff, the kind of self-consciously repressed performance that Robin Williams sometimes gave in dramas. Dodgy as all this is, the film improves markedly in its last third with the introduction of a new character and perspective.