CHLOE & THEO
⋆ out of four stars
Theater: Arbor Lakes.
As the summer release season scrapes the bottom of the barrel, you may still have room on your commemorative shelf of the year’s lamest oddities. It is about as exciting as watching a gerbil on an exercise wheel.
Dakota Johnson, the only admirable element in “50 Shades of Grey,” does what she can to elevate this threadbare indie, with worse results. She plays Chloe, a homeless New Yorker who welcomes Inuit newcomer Theo (Theo Ikummaq). The street urchin digs his pacifist attitude, volunteering to slip him past United Nations security to offer the warning about global warming that his elders have sent him to deliver. Mira Sorvino plays a socialite with a dramatic secret who joins their quest, André De Shields appears as a ghetto know-it-all who tries to navigate the crusade.
By the end of the film, Theo hopes to go home to the igloo and you wish him luck. Borrowing themes from “Candide,” it makes us wonder why bad things happen to good people. Including movie audiences.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for language and some sexual references.
There’s a classic moment in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when our heroes are stuck on a cliff, looking down to the fast-flowing river far below. Butch tells his partner, who can’t swim, not to worry since “The fall will probably kill you,” and Sundance says a very naughty word that became the most memorable movie quote of 1969.
Robert Redford is stuck in the wilderness 46 years later in “A Walk in the Woods,” finding himself and his wisecracking companion in a similar difficulty. He says something even profaner, and again it’s one of the best things in a first-rate movie.
The film is based on the travelogue by Bill Bryson, one of America’s most addictively entertaining nonfiction writers. His bestselling memoir of his attempt to tackle the challenging Appalachian Trail hike is a project Redford owned for many years.
He shares the screen with Nick Nolte, whose mammoth stomach, unkempt hair and gravelly voice are perfect for the unfit, funny, slovenly Steven Katz, a recovering alcoholic school friend of Bryson’s who insisted on coming along for the trek.
Redford plays Bryson as a whimsical curmudgeon who reveres the beauty of his country more than the people who inhabit it. Comedy isn’t the hallmark of his career. But released from the shackles of his serious stereotype, Redford glorifies every gag in the script.
There’s something here that is warmly entertaining as the stars gripe at each other across the country. These are characters you instantly like and want to succeed as they plod from failure to failure.
There’s something delightful about watching two snappish old men relentlessly take the Mickey out of each other as long as you’re shown their underlying fondness.
LEARNING TO DRIVE
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for language and sexual content.
“Learning to Drive,” not to be confused with the Corey Haim/Corey Feldman vehicle “License to Drive,” comes from an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker article by essayist Katha Pollitt. In the magazine piece, later published in a Pollitt collection of stories, the longtime nondriving Manhattan resident bounces back from a breakup with a womanizing jerk (I’m taking her point of view) by grabbing the wheel of her own life, through driving lessons. At one point Pollitt imagines using her newfound skills to commit vehicular homicide on her ex.
Nothing quite so fanciful occurs in the movie, which is decorous and civilized in the extreme. It’s extremely well acted by Patricia Clarkson, as a Manhattan book critic, and Ben Kingsley, as her fastidious Sikh driving instructor. Clarkson’s Wendy is navigating an unwanted divorce and has a daughter (Grace Gummer) working on a Vermont commune whom she’d like to see more. Hence the lessons with her instructor, Darwan (Kingsley), who meanwhile is negotiating a difficult new life in an arranged marriage to a woman (Sarita Choudhury of “Mississippi Masala”).
Student and teacher become friends, with the tantalizing promise of something more. The adaptation by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (a co-writer on “9½ Weeks,” to name another film not to be confused with this one) has been directed with supreme tact by Isabel Coixet. Her earlier works include “Elegy,” also featuring Kingsley and Clarkson. That film, based on a Philip Roth story, was as male-centric as this one is female.
I wish “Learning to Drive” imagined a fuller, more dimensional inner life for Wendy, but Clarkson develops a push-pull rapport with Kingsley that fills in the blanks — or, rather, mitigates the script’s on-the-nose tendencies. They’re both highly concentrated performers, with speaking voices (his like an oboe, hers like a different oboe) that convey a worldliness and mysterious wisdom, often in a single word.
The movie isn’t much, but the drivers pass with flying colors.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS, Chicago Tribune