Thursday, April 7, 2011

With A Simple Story, Driving Miss Daisy Is Charming, But Forgettable.

The Good: Good tone, Decent acting, Good character arcs
The Bad: Very simple, Doesn't truly go anywhere
The Basics: Fun and charming, Driving Miss Daisy is a short film which has little real substance or sparkle.

As I take the final steps to completing my Best Picture Project, I found myself quite excited when my wife actually agreed to watch one of the Best Pictures with me. The film was Driving Miss Daisy, which I recalled seeing once as a child and enjoying, but had not seen since. Last night, that changed as we sat together and watched the light film and we both watched and felt generally sedate. Driving Miss Daisy is a very simple movie and it is one that has both little going for it and little detracting from it. It is so simple, in fact, that I'm struggling now to come up with enough to write about it.

This is not to say the movie is bad, but it is simple. And as an age of blockbusters was rung in with special effects driving them, Driving Miss Daisy stands as a testament to very simple moviemaking, though with all of the make-up effects, it does manage to use the medium well.

Daisy Werthan is a crabby old lady who crashed her car, had it replaced by the insurance company, but now needs a driver. At least, her adult son Boolie is convinced she needs a driver. In 1950s Georgia, Boolie encounters Hoke Colburn who stops by Boolie's work where he helps get an elevator up and running again and he hires Hoke to be Daisy's driver. Daisy is frigid to the idea and seems instantly at odds with Hoke, refusing to let him do anything around her house and rebuking him when he bonds with her maid, Idella. But avoiding embarrassment when Hoke insists on driving her to the store ñ by driving her cart beside her as she walks down the sidewalk ñ she finally lets the black chauffeur do his job.

From that point on, the loquacious Hoke uses the time with Daisy to bond and do his job as best he can. The two spar, converse and go on trips with one another. Daisy helps Hoke learn to read and Hoke gets Daisy to loosen up some, especially when Idella dies and Hoke helps her out more around the house. As the times change in the 1960s and 1970s, both Daisy and Hoke grow older and less able to remain independent. . .

Driving Miss Daisy is a film with a very simple plot, very simple character arcs and very simple direction. It is a mild comedy and most of the comedy comes in dry humor, like Daisy getting bent out of shape that Hoke ate a thirty-three cent can of salmon without her permission, dragging Boolie out of bed to help her fire him and Hoke coming through the door replacing the can before she can even force the issue! This is a paired character study and while Hoke learns to read (it seems), the character who actually changes is Daisy herself, though even that is a stretch to write.

I make that assertion because Driving Miss Daisy features leaps in time, from the early Fifties to a Martin Luther King Jr. rally to a decade after. As a result, Miss Daisy does not seem to change all that much, the viewer simply learns more about her. So, for example, she is uptight through almost the entire movie, arguably until the last two scenes. But when she converses with Hoke about King, she insists she has never been a racist and for all we know, she is telling the truth; we've not seen much of her outside a few scenes where she is generally ornery. It's hard to say a character evolves from being closed to open minded when they are an equal opportunity offender all the way through!

That said, this simple comedy does have its charms and its messages. While it stretches the historical realism, it does take time to make a lot of social commentary. The Werthans are Jewish, Hoke is black and they live and work in the South in tumultuous times. Hoke, for example, cannot use bathrooms at the gas stations and this becomes a problem when he is driving Daisy to Alabama. Similarly, Boolie becomes very anxious about Daisy's support of Dr. King because of the business opportunities that might not come his way as a result. There is even an anti-Jewish hate crime that is perpetrated, so the sense of ìeverybody is against our protagonistsî is pretty prevalent.

Even so, most of the film is simple, feel-good encounters where the likable Hoke slowly erodes the stiff and angry faÁade Daisy has in place. The reason it is worth watching is that the acting is quite good. Morgan Freeman plays Hoke and he plays him with a Southern dialect which is atypical for the performer. Instead, he drawls and he slurs through his stories, slowly making it more pronounced as the character gets older. He also has a wonderful physical presence in the role of Hoke, which allows him to be stiff with dignity in one scene and casual and loose in another. Costar Jessica Tandy does a decent job as Daisy for the same reason, though her performance is almost entirely stiff, which fits the character.

The real acting surprise comes in the form of Dan Aykroyd, who plays Boolie. The well-established comedian does an excellent job of playing the straightman for Morgan Freeman. In fact, there is no other role of Aykroydís with I can think of which was intentionally serious where he was so convincing in the part. Director Bruce Beresford does an excellent job of getting something different out of Aykroyd.

On DVD, Driving Miss Daisy comes only with the theatrical trailer and text notes on the production of the film. Fans of the movie will be disappointed, though one suspects that when it arrives on Blu-Ray it might have more bells and whistles.

Even so, it is tough to get excited about the idea of a Blu-Ray of this film. It is simple and fun, but after fifteen years (at least) since I last saw it, I discovered I remembered many of the key parts and even the specific imagery (like Idella's fall). It is hard to make the argument to add this very average film to one's permanent library, though it is worth watching.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project which is available here! Please check it out!]

For other films featuring Morgan Freeman, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
Million Dollar Baby


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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