Review: In the underpowered 'Daddio,' the proverbial cab ride from hell could use more hell

The art of conversation has been a casualty in these deeply divided days of ours, and the poor state of talk in the movies — so often expositional, glib or posturing — is an unfortunate reflection of that. The new film “Daddio” is an attempt to put verbal discourse front and center, confining to a yellow taxi a pair with different life paths, as you would expect when your leads are Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson. (Guess which one is the cabbie.)

Johnson’s coolly elegant, nameless traveler, a computer programmer returning to New York’s JFK airport from a trip visiting a big sister in Oklahoma, may be getting a flat rate for her journey, but the meter’s always running on the mouth of Penn’s gleefully crusty and opinionated driver, Clark. He’s a twice-married man prone to streetwise philosophizing about the state of the world and, over the course of the ride, the unsettled romances of his attractive fare. And as she drops clues about her life — sometimes unwittingly, then a little more freely — she gives back with some probing responses of her own, trying to pry him open.

Writer-director Christy Hall, who originally conceived the scenario as a stage play, lets the chatter roll — there’s a significant stretch in which the cab isn’t even moving. And when silence sets in, there’s still an exchange to tend to, as Johnson occasionally, with apprehension, responds to a lover’s insistent sexting. This third figure (unseen, save one predictable picture sent to her phone) becomes another source of conjectural bravado for Clark, a self-proclaimed expert in male-female relations, who makes eye contact through the rearview mirror.

Watching the unremarkable “Daddio,” you’ll never worry that anything untoward or combustible will happen between the chauvinist driver with a heart of gold and the smart if vulnerable young female passenger who “can handle herself,” as Clark frequently observes. That lack of tension is the problem. The movie is less about a nuanced conversation between strangers than a writer’s careful construction, designed to bridge a cultural impasse between the sexes. Hall is so eager to stage a big moment that upends expectations and triggers wet-eyed epiphanies — He’s a compassionate blowhard! She can laugh at his crassness! — that we’re never allowed to feel the molecules shift from moment to moment in a way that isn’t unforced. Life may be the subject, but life is what’s missing.

It doesn’t help that in directing her first feature, Hall has given herself one of the hardest jobs, getting the most out of only two ingredients and one container. It’s probably why Jim Jarmusch went the variety route with five different tales for his memorable 1991 taxi suite “Night on Earth.” That film conveyed a palpable sense of time and space.

“Daddio,” on the other hand, is nowhere near as assured visually or in its pacing. Hall has an experienced cinematographer in Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska,” “Ford v Ferrari”) but chooses an unfortunate studio gloss that suggests utter control, rather than a what-might-happen vibe. Not that there’s anything wrong with a movie so clearly made on a set. But Johnson’s well-rehearsed poise and Penn’s coasting boldness make them seem like the stars of a commercial for a scent called Common Ground rather than flesh-and-blood people. At times, they hardly seem to be sharing the same car interior, leaving “Daddio” feeling like a safe space, when what it needs is danger.

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