2021 | Unrated (R equivalent) | starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada | directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi | 2h 59m | In Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalong and Sign Language with English Subtitles |

One of the first of many, many things to appreciate about Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is that it’s a movie without a high concept elevator pitch. It can’t be summarized accurately in 1 or two sentences. I always compare this kind of movie to The Apartment, the Jack Lemmon classic that feels like it was made of 2 or 3 other ideas that by themselves don’t make up a movie, but combine together to make something unique and organic. It unspools at it’s own pace, one that is deliberate, immersive, slow and perfect even at a hair under 3 hours. It’s also one of the few movies that earns it’s imposing length. For something is always happening either to advance the plot, a character piece that will fold into the film later, the mood or to immerse us in the world of the film. To argue that one dialog scene could be cut down or it’s epic prologue could be nixed would be to miss the point entirely.

The story follows  Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and playwright who works in the shadow of his famous screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirshima) who is asked to help adapt an Anton Chekhov play at a residency in Hiroshima, Japan. During that time the resistant Yusuke is given a driver (Toko Miura) by the studio and he becomes intertwined with the lives of the driver, his lead actor (Masaki Okada) and play producer while dealing with his own grief.

Anyone reading this who has seen Drive My Car will know I’m tap dancing around some key plot points worth leaving for the audience to discover. The film has a lengthy, staccato-paced prologue that establishes one kind of film and then an opening credit sequence 45 minutes in that kicks off the main plot. We see, at length, the workman process of putting together the play from auditions to table readings to rehearsals. We see after-hours drinks with the cast and producer and line memorizations. We see a lot of driving, as Yusuke’s prized red Saab becomes a central character, gliding through the streets, bridges across landscapes in Hiroshima. The film operates on multiple levels, as a character piece about grief and betrayal, as a travelogue, as a look at the production process. It’s specific set-up, an actor directing his own play, reminded me of movies like Clouds of Sils Maria or Godard’s Contempt movies set during the production of a movie that blur the line between reality and art.

Drive My Car is a character piece through and through. It doesn’t pretend to be a thriller or something ambiguous. It’s a drama about grief, but isn’t heavy-handed about it. It builds all of it’s relationships richly and lets you sit in it’s world. In this case that world is the city of Hiroshima, a beautiful place from the look of the film reclaiming an image for the city mostly known for being obliterated. All of the characters orbit around Yusuke to flesh out that world, from the mute actress communicating in sign language to the young, hot-head actor seeking to reclaim his image to the driver, Misaki herself, who increasingly opens up to Yusuke on their 1 hour car rides back to the hotel. Their relationship slowly becomes the heart of the film, warming from simply a driver to an important person in his life.

My biggest, and only, really critique to the core of the film is their relationship, which falls just shy of great Unlikely Friendship films like Lost in Translation. I wanted to see them bond in a more multi-dimensional way. This movie has only one mode – drama – but it would have strengthened their bond to see them forced together in an absurd situation or get them laughing once in a while. A bit more variety in their interactions would have catapulted Drive My Car into the stratosphere for me.

I greatly admire straight character dramas like this. There is something bold and exhilarating about a movie that doesn’t lean back on a genre convention or a high concept idea and just stands on it’s emotions alone. There is no safety net here and Hamaguchi pulls this off masterfully. This movie is a film more about the journey than the destination. That’s usually a sign that the endpoint isn’t very satisfying, but in the case of Drive My Car, the journey is satisfying and so is the destination.