Drive My Car has a story that could be beautifully, meaningfully told in ninety minutes, yet it's been unnecessarily stretched out to twice that length. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi clearly wants the audience to have time to digest his themes, to live with the characters' dilemmas for a while. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Some of the greatest films ever made attained such greatness because they let their stories breathe. In this case, though, Hamaguchi pads the proper story with material that's monotonous and quickly grasped. A potentially touching tale about grief is consequently bogged down to the point where it breeds impatience.
Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a well-known stage actor and director. His wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a successful television writer. The first forty minutes depict their relationship, which is somehow both supportive and mildly disconnected. It doesn't help matters that Oto isn't always faithful. When she passes away unexpectedly, Yusuke heads off to Hiroshima to mount a production of Uncle Vanya. The theater festival has a rule that creatives are not allowed to drive themselves – a rule that rubs him the wrong way, given that he uses his drive time to rehearse lines.
Reluctantly, Yusuke accepts the services of Misaki (Toko Miura), an introverted twentysomething woman who is hired to drive him around in his cherished Saab 900. Over time, he discovers that she is mourning, too. This begins the process of them connecting through sadness. Despite having almost nothing else in common, the two come to understand each other on a profound level.
Drive My Car is at its best when it sticks to Yusuke and Misaki. During the movie's last half-hour, they go on a trek to revisit the location that spawned Misaki's sorrow, and you can really feel how these two bereaved individuals click. Nishijima and Miura give authentic, nuanced performances that avoid showy acting in favor of emotional honesty. In this sense, the film has its finger on an important idea, namely that a person feels less alone in the world when they know somebody else is feeling the same things they are.
Surrounding that core idea is a lot of filler. Drive My Car has way too many scenes of Yusuke and his cast rehearsing the play. Hamaguchi presumably wants to show how the character is channeling his grief into the production, although we grasp that idea quickly and don't need to see it again and again and again. Having to watch these rehearsals just pulls us away from the developing bond between the leads, i.e. the true heart of the movie. Similarly, endless scenes of Yusuke going over his dialogue in the car slow things down, as do the lengthy montages of Misaki driving the Saab.
When a filmmaker is trying to tackle big ideas, there's a tricky balance that needs to be achieved. Rush through the story's events and you risk becoming shallow. Belabor them and the audience loses interest. Drive My Car never finds that balance. Scenes between Yusuke and Misaki are so impassioned that I started to resent it when the movie stayed away from them for too long. The rehearsal sequences are necessary to make the ending fully pay off, but we don't require as many of them as we get in order to comprehend what's happening.
Drive My Car certainly has admirable qualities. Those qualities, however, are too frequently pushed aside in favor of material that could easily have been trimmed with no discernible negative impact. That ultimately offers its own form of heartbreak.
out of four
Drive My Car is unrated, but contains nudity/sexual content, mature thematic material, and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 58 minutes.