It’s a nifty feeling when you can revel in a film whose driving engine is closely built atop something else you’ve read or seen before. No, I don’t mean reboots or sequels.
Prime example: all the reviews I’ve read for The French Dispatch embraced its key objective as an homage to The New Yorker. Apart from clicking on the occasional Richard Brody pieces until I hit my monthly paywall limit, The New Yorker has never been my thing. Accredited critics apparently have lifetime subscriptions to it and were overjoyed to have Wes Anderson spinning tales within their distinguished frame of reference. Not that I’m begrudging them the chance to enjoy intellectual dividends on their literary investment, but I confess I sighed in relief when it received zero Academy Award nominations. The last time I sat for two hours repeating to myself over and over, “I don’t get it,” it was while watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which posed similar paradigm alienation for me. I wasn’t looking forward to recreating that experience for my Oscar Quest ’22 and am now not self-obligated to include it.
Meanwhile in Japan, one Ryusuke Hamaguchi — a new name to me because I’ve never been to a film festival or a theater in NYC or L.A. — co-wrote and directed Drive My Car, which loosely adapts a short story but whose narrative and thematic foundation is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As luck would have it, that particular play has popped up twice in my life — in one college class that I barely remember (I had the Cliffs Notes) and again in preparation for a comic con.
If you’re one of MCC’s most obsessive fans, the kind who’s memorized everything I’ve ever written just in case I might one day turn all my experiences into Easter eggs that will come to mean more in future entries, then you might just recall the two times Vanya has been mentioned here. If so, it’s my duty to inform you that you’re fictional and I’m really only talking to myself. That’s not uncommon for men of a certain age.
Anyway: once upon a time in 1994, Wallace Shawn, his good friend Andre Gregory, and director Louis Malle — the gentlemen responsible for the conversational classic My Dinner With Andre — reteamed for Vanya on 42nd Street, which I previously mentioned like so:
…performed as a full-length rehearsal of the Chekhov play with no costumes or audience in the tattered ruins of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theater before it was renovated years later. (Ironically, today it’s the Broadway home of Disney’s Aladdin.) As the director-within-the-production, Gregory appears largely as a framing device between scenes, stepping back to let Shawn spar with the likes of George Gaynes (Punky Brewster, Police Academy), Brooke Smith (Silence of the Lambs, Bates Motel), and future Academy Award Winner Julianne Moore, whose part is no larger or smaller than the rest but whose giant head takes up nearly the entire movie poster.
(In hindsight I’m surprised I failed to mention David Mamet wrote its adapted screenplay. Also, years after that entry, I’d finally see costar Larry Pine in House of Cards, another exercise in expanding my frames of reference, so now I know him too.)
I encountered Vanya while prepping for Cincinnati Comic Expo 2017, where the guest list included Mr. Shawn, whom you remember from such films as Clueless, The Princess Bride, and the Toy Story series. Thanks to him, I’ve seen Vanya done, stunned him by asking him to autograph my copy (as opposed to, say, a Rex toy), and appreciated its adaptation within Hamaguchi’s context.
(If you thought all that was a long prologue, you should see the movie’s. The opening credits don’t roll till a good forty minutes in, out of a total three-hour run time. Bring snacks.)
In Drive My Car the play has been revived by the local arts council in Hiroshima, which sheltered Western viewers may be surprised to learn remains a living, thriving city to this day and is not a 76-year-old crater with a picket sign in the middle reading “NEVER FORGET”. (There are of course monuments, mentioned here but not in the forefront.) The council hires renowned theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) for an eight-week residency to oversee the production. As befitting his past avant-garde adaptations (including a previous take on Waiting for Godot), each actor will perform their lines in their preferred language. The casting process produces an ensemble that alternately communicates in Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, and Korean Sign Language. Some don’t understand each other, but a combination of translators and emotional connections gets the job done.
Kafuku is comfortable with his working mode, but the mere act of taking the job was a challenge. After his beloved wife has exited the film, he bears emotional scars two years later from questions never asked or answered. He’s performed Vanya before, even starred as the titular uncle whose calm is shattered when his stable home life is threatened and he’s forced to reckon with the opportunities that slipped beyond his grasp. He still knows all the lines and cadences by heart, but the play’s own themes — repressed family conflicts, haunting regrets, the pain of existence during times of hardship — cut too close to the bone in hindsight. The best he can offer is to introduce it to a new generation, teach it to them through his lens, and hope they’ll listen and get it.
One slight hitch: while he’s in Hiroshima, for legal reasons the council won’t allow him to do his own driving, no matter how much he protests, no matter how deeply his long drives factor into his daily mental prep. Enter his designated driver Misaki (Tōko Miura), a reserved young woman who’s the best there is at what she does. She doesn’t brag about it. She isn’t snarky or confrontational. She doesn’t do super awesome stunts like jump bridges or drive up the sides of buildings while Kafuku screams in the back seat. She in fact barely speaks until and unless she’s spoken to. She does her job. He does his. And she’s half his age, so their relationship isn’t heading that direction, though I won’t be shocked if someday there’s a white Hollywood version that swerves the other way.
As weeks of lengthy commutes go on, a curious relationship develops between him and his informal chauffeur as they take turns with the requisite opening-up. The mostly silent Misaki spoke to me in her own way as, much like my own penchant for road trips and endurance tests behind the wheel (long story), there’s an entire not-so-cheerful origin tale to her driving skill set. Hers is more painful than mine, but for each of us, how we navigate the open road is more than a perfunctory reaching of Points A or B.
The film in general is more about the depth of performances and heartfelt revelations behind unrevealing eyes than about its visuals. The passing scenery is a modest, realistic contrast from the hyperreal Japan that big-budget filmmakers prefer. In that grounded setting Kafuku puts the actors through their paces, particularly a notorious youngster named Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) who used to be kind of a big deal until he tripped hard over his impulse control issues. Their age-gapped tug-of-war complicates rehearsals and draws the longest meaningful looks from Kafuku. The connections and conflicts between characters don’t quite mirror those in Vanya, but their emotional potholes are similarly carved.
For me the greatest challenge wasn’t the three-hour run time, but my avowed status as an old prude. In the prologue we meet Kafuku and his wife, often in, um, the throes of their writing process. Their method is decidedly R-rated, but it’s how they collaborate. In lieu of actual childbearing, it’s how they connect, how they make art together, how they create new life of a different sort that reverberates long after their team is rent asunder. Beyond the prologue, nothing else dares match their intimacy or intensity. Theirs is the relationship to which all others in the film aspire, including arguably Vanya‘s own characters if they’d been afforded meta moments. All of that is capped off with the play’s final monologue, rendered in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes as a sort of KSL ballet that reaches a despairing heart in greatest need of hearing it. Even before that, one duo culminates with, apropos of me, a day-long road trip that had me researching Japanese geography the next day so I could follow along.
Drive My Car has already earned honors at a few second-tier movie-awards handouts, and not just in their minor categories. Don’t be shocked if its name is heard a few times at the ceremony, considering the Academy’s abiding love of performances about performance. Some impatient viewers might find it taxing (my son says he would’ve preferred a two-hour audiobook version), but I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loves a tale that takes the scenic route to its redemptive destination, and in particular for anyone who might recognize the signposts it passes along the way.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I don’t watch nearly enough Japanese cinema to have much here, except to toss in the fun trivia that Reika Kirishima, who plays Kafuku’s wife, in her youth played one of several aliens in Godzilla: Final Wars, which my son tells me was very cool.
How about those end credits? I wish I could perform my usual MCC task of telling you whether or not there’s a scene after the Drive My Car end credits, but the jerkweed projectionist turned off the film halfway through the end credits. I presume it was a school night for him.