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MOVIE REVIEW

Walters steers 'Driving Lessons'

Any movie with ``lesson" in the title is probably desperate to impart one. No thank you. ``Driving Lessons" told me something I already knew -- that Julie Walters is a shameless comedian.

Nonetheless, fans of comic British preciousness will like Jeremy Brock's directing debut, in which Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the ``Harry Potter" movies) has sex and mans a car. The rest of us can enjoy Walters bullying poor Grint in just about every scene of this otherwise trifling exercise.

In the ``Potter" films, these two are mother and son. Here, they're mother and son-ish. Grint plays Ben, a gangly 17-year-old, who takes a job assisting Walters's Evie, a stoop-shouldered, rumpled, and tart stage actress. Ben needs the job because his devout mother (Laura Linney) wants him to pitch in to help get a new houseguest back on his feet. This is a matter of Christian charity, but what about mom's insistence that he chauffeur her to extramarital liaisons?

Not only is Ben forced to keep mom's secret from his father (Nicholas Farrell), an ineffectual vicar, he's also torn between two nutty ideas of maternal need. When Ben opts to spend the night with a young Scotswoman (Michelle Duncan), making him late for an important engagement with his boss, Evie doesn't stop reminding him that he let her down.

The movie is not as psychologically complicated or darkly dramatic as it might sound. It's as blithe and jaunty as recent British comedies ``Calendar Girls," ``Kinky Boots," and ``Mrs. Henderson Presents." A proven screenwriter, Brock (``Mrs. Brown," ``Charlotte Gray") builds in slapstick and sight gags, then leans hard on them, evading anything that might be too emotionally taxing.

``Driving Lessons," in fact, appears to be as uncomfortable with Ben's mother as he is. As usual, Linney throws likability to the wind, but the character needs a director willing to do more than play hypocrisy for an empty joke. ``Mobiles give you cancer!" she screams when Ben points out that he couldn't check in with her because he doesn't have a cellphone.

Everybody in the movie is so tightly wound that Walters seems a model of actorly limberness. She cuts through the movie with speed and mannish, zany wit. Imagine Tracey Ullman playing Katharine Hepburn for 10-year-olds. Actually, you don't have to imagine. Just catch the movie's best scene, where Walters busts up a church stage play with flailing limbs and drunken gospel shouting.

Unfortunately, Grint seems less like a co-star and more like a sparring partner. But he takes her punches like a man. And Walters delivers them like a pro.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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