"Drive My Car" viewers need to be patient, but that patience is rewarded.
The Japanese finalist for this year's best international feature Oscar is three not-exactly-action-packed hours long, but it makes every second count. By the end, having spent all that time in the rhythms of the life of actor/director Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), you feel like you've been through the wringer with him. He's grieving the death of his wife and trying to put his life back together, with the words of Anton Chekhov there to help him, if he can figure out how to listen.
Throughout its running time, "Drive My Car" sets up little mysteries that remind us how complicated other humans are and that keep us guessing about the behavior of its characters.
Why does Yûsuke say nothing when he happens upon his wife having an affair with a stranger, shortly before her death? Why does he behave so oddly, many months later, when he agrees to direct a production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," choosing one actor who's clearly not up to the demands of the play and dancing around another company member who seems to have a hidden agenda? What is the significance he attaches to his car? Why is it so hard for him to relinquish it when the theater forces him to let a taciturn woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura) chauffeur him everywhere?
These are not world-shaking questions, obviously, but the stakes feel huge in "Drive My Car" because director/co-writer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is keenly attuned to the delicate, shifting mysteries of human behavior. It's a movie where you'll often think, "Wait. Why would anyone do that?" but then, when a few details emerge, realize the behavior not only rings true but that you've done the same thing. Strangers, the movie says, don't make sense. Then, suddenly, they do.
Theater fans will thrill to how the "Vanya" rehearsal scenes offer a privileged peek at Yûsuke's unorthodox methods, which baffle even his actors. Those scenes also capture the beautiful thing that happens when you realize that a story, written long ago and by someone who is nothing like you, has captured a feeling or situation that hits you where you live.
Hamaguchi, adapting three stories by acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami, obviously cares deeply about the exchange that happens among a play, its interpreters and its audiences. But you don't need to love theater to love "Drive My Car." Many of its mysteries are wrapped up in the unusual bond between resentful Yûsuke and diffident Misaki, who reluctantly open up to each other because they're jammed in a small car and there's nothing else to do.
As they drive and chat, those two lonely people eventually address elusive questions that have been troubling them. They don't necessarily solve their problems but they do get a bracing reminder of something Chekhov, Murakami, Hamaguchi and pretty much everyone who views this gorgeous movie can agree on: Sometimes, the thing we need most is to be reminded that we are not alone.
'Drive My Car'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: Not rated but contains sexual situations, partial nudity and some strong language.
Where: Heights Theater.