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Award-winning Japanese film "Drive My Car" fails to impress this critic

Audrey Kupferberg pointing out some of her favorite Hollywood movie posters in her home in 2021.
Jackie Orchard

Do you know the feeling of being bored by a film that most critics and your friends consider to be terrific? Once in a while that happens to me, but I’m hesitant to go public. Too embarrassing! So I say nothing. However, sometimes I do go public.

Case in point…. The Japanese production Drive My Car from last year which was directed and co-written by the often-brilliant filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The film is based on several short stories by Haruki Murakami. Hamaguchi has received praise for his previous features, particularly for Happy Hour, which was engrossing and hardly ever flagged, even as the longest Japanese film ever made at 5 hours 17 minutes.

I lost interest during the first half hour of Drive My Car, not realizing that the first forty minutes or so presented an introduction to events yet to occur. I put the film aside, but the following day I persevered and finished the 3-hour film. Drive My Car has won major awards and has earned a long list of nominations. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language and an Oscar for Best International Feature Film at this year’s ceremonies. The critics Metascore on imdb.com is 91. The critics’ Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes reads 97%, even though the audience score lags behind the critics at 78%.

This is a well-produced film, and the direction, cinematography, editing, and acting are high quality. It’s the screenplay that lacks real power, and the pace – particularly in the first hour, drags. The story: In Hiroshima, a middle-aged couple, both successful theater people, have lost a child. The wife plays around. Still, it’s a love match. Then she leaves the scene. The grieving husband has problems moving forward. Two years pass, and he is set to direct a production of Uncle Vanya. Interesting? Could have been.

Too much time is spent on repetitive recitations of lines that the dead wife recorded and the husband practices in the car. The plot never really takes off, but that may be Hamaguchi’s style. He avoids the melodramatic. In the third hour, the husband is in the car with a handsome young actor who had had an affair with the dead wife. Here we are at the emotional and possibly the intellectual crux of the film.

The young actor tells the husband that one should be grateful to live 20 years with a person. “Even if you think you know someone well, even if you love that person dearly, you can’t completely look into that person’s heart. You’ll just feel hurt. But if you put in enough effort, you should be able to look into your own heart pretty well. So in the end what we should be doing is to be true to your own heart and come to terms with it in a capable way. If you really want to look at someone, the only option is to look at yourself squarely and deeply.”

The character giving the speech is a troubled but sensitive guy, but the writers have chosen to put those philosophical thoughts into his mouth, and there is no attitude apparent to make us discount his thoughts. I’ve read and re-read that speech. It’s philosophical mumbo jumbo. But it is one of two key moments in the film.

I understand that Hamaguchi is striving for a pace that reflects real life. I understand that he may be more interested in character development than in building an action and emotion-packed plot. Still, while respecting Hamaguchi for creating an art film with care, I resent him for challenging me with such an uninspired screenplay. Well, now I’ve said it. While most of the rest of the film world, including critics, festival programmers, and audiences, have praised Drive My Car, I disliked it. I was bored.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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