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'Learning to Drive' well worth the trip

'Learning to Drive' well worth the trip
Patricia Clarkson, right, and Ben Kingsley in a scene from the movie "Learning to Drive." (Broad Green Pictures)

Providing a welcome, grown-up escape from all that summer escapism, director Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" is a richly observed, crosscultural character study that coasts along pleasurably on the strengths of its virtuoso leads.

Freshly dumped by her longtime husband, Manhattan book critic Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) is struggling to take control of the life she thought she knew.

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Having never driven a car before, she takes lessons from Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a highly principled Sikh driving instructor who's about to be married to a woman from India whom he has never met.

It's a given that this certified odd couple will affect each other's lives in unexpected ways. While the script, based on an autobiographical New Yorker magazine article, goes a bit heavy on the driving metaphors, the director gets maximum mileage out of their performances.

Coixet previously directed Clarkson and Kingsley in the 2008 film "Elegy." Here, Clarkson's Wendy credibly fights a losing battle disguising her vulnerability beneath her tough New Yorker exterior; Darwan may have the patience of a saint, but he's no Gandhi, and having already been there, Kingsley imbues his character with some spirited contradictions.

"Learning to Drive" may might not cover fresh ground, but with Clarkson and Kingsley behind the wheel, it makes for a lovely excursion.

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"Learning to Drive."

MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West L.A.

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