Award-winning Japanese film ‘Drive My Car’ fails to impress this reviewer

Do you know the feeling of being bored by a movie that most critics and your friends think is great? It happens to me from time to time, but I hesitate to say it publicly. Too annoying! So I say nothing. However, sometimes I go public.

Case in point…. Last year’s Japanese production Drive My Car which was directed and co-written by often brilliant filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The film is based on several short stories by Haruki Murakami. Hamaguchi has received praise for his previous feature films, especially for Happy Hour, which was gripping and almost unreported, even as the longest Japanese film ever made at 5 hours 17 minutes.

I lost interest for the first half hour of Drive My Car, not realizing that the first forty minutes or so featured an introduction to events yet to come. I put the film aside, but the next day I persevered and finished the 3 hour film. Drive My Car has won major awards and garnered a long list of nominations. It won the BAFTA award for Best Non-English Language Film and the Oscar for Best International Feature at this year’s ceremonies. The Critics Metascore on is 91. The Critics Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes reads 97%, though the Audience Score lags the critics at 78%.

It’s a well-produced film, and the direction, cinematography, editing, and acting are all top-notch. It’s the scenario that really lacks power, and the pace, especially the first hour, drags on. The story: In Hiroshima, a middle-aged couple, both successful theater people, lost a child. The woman is having fun. Still, it’s a love match. Then she leaves the stage. The bereaved husband struggles to move on. Two years pass and he is about to direct a production of Uncle Vanya. Interesting? Could have been.

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

The young actor tells the husband that you have to be grateful to live 20 years with one person. “Even if you think you know someone well, even if you love that person deeply, you can’t look completely into that person’s heart. You’ll just feel hurt. But if you try hard enough, you should be able to look well into your own heart. So ultimately what we should do is be true to your own heart and competently accept it. 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 chose to put these philosophical thoughts in his mouth, and there’s no apparent attitude to get us to dismiss his thoughts. I have read and reread this speech. This is philosophical gibberish. But it’s one of the two key moments in the film.

I understand that Hamaguchi strives for a pacing that reflects real life. I understand that he may be more interested in character development than building an action-packed, emotional plot. Still, while respecting Hamaguchi for creating an art film with care, I resent him for challenging me with such an uninspired script. Well, now I said it. While most of the rest of the film world, including critics, festival programmers and audiences, praised Drive My Car, I didn’t like it. I was bored.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and evaluator. She is a Distinguished Lecturer and former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-author of several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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