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Review | Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson go for a ride in ‘Daddio.’ It’s a talker.

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The genre of movies that take place almost entirely inside automobiles is niche but endlessly intriguing.

Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry,” “Ten”) and Jafar Panahi (“Tehran Taxi”) have made a specialty of the form, in part because a car is one of the few places the authorities can’t typically listen in. David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” stretched a corporate limo to surreal lengths, and Steven Knight’s “Locke” — probably the best of the bunch — had Tom Hardy as a man undergoing professional and personal meltdowns via car phone on a 90-mile drive to London.

Now we have “Daddio” — roughly 100 real-time minutes in a New York taxi from John F. Kennedy Airport to midtown Manhattan, with Sean Penn behind the wheel and Dakota Johnson in the back seat. The first feature written and directed by Christy Hall (she wrote Netflix’s YA superhero series “I Am Not Okay With This”), “Daddio” embraces the lunatic challenge of the Car Drama — can you even call it a movie in such tight quarters? — while trying to convince viewers they’re watching more than a mobile stage play.

Hall comes close enough to merit attention and respect while still falling short of delivering a wholly compelling experience. The performers can’t be faulted — indeed, this is the kind of dramatic two-hander that gets an actor’s creative juices flowing, and for Penn, it’s the meatiest film role he’s had in some time. His character, a cabbie named Clark (who’s always seen himself as more of a Vinny), starts out as a classic Noo Yawk cliché, the motormouthed outer-borough roughneck, half streetwise charmer, half pain in the tuchus. His views on women and relations between the sexes are politically incorrect but not without their elements of truth, and at heart, he’s a good guy.

At least, that’s what “Daddio” wants us to think, but in the early scenes with Johnson’s character, who’s never given a name, you may be forgiven for wondering if she should just get out and walk. The woman is young, attractive and professional, and she carries herself with the unfazed assurance of a native New Yorker. But we learn she’s coming off a late-night flight from a visit to her hometown in Oklahoma, and she scrolls through incoming texts from a lover, some of them explicit, with more melancholy than eagerness.

Driver and passenger get to exchanging pleasantries, then personal details, and eventually intimacies with the bravado of two people who know they’ll never see each other again. Clark is enough of a student of human nature to peg the woman’s boyfriend as a seriously bad investment, and he advises her in blunt, sometimes ridiculous monologues of sexual realpolitik based on his own sorry history with women. “Lookin’ like a family man is more important than being one,” he tells her. To which she angrily responds, “You’re everything wrong with the world.”

Yet they’re stuck in a traffic jam on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, at midnight, so where’s she going to go? Eventually, she and we understand that the pig he used to be isn’t the man he is now, and “Daddio” builds to a mutual series of confessions that themselves serve as a bridge of rare and precious human connection.

If only we weren’t almost constantly aware of writer-director Hall’s not-invisible-enough hand guiding the dialogue and the drama. Penn can get under the skin of difficult characters like few other actors, but even he has trouble selling a sub-Stanley Kowalski line like (about an ex-wife): “She was like a summer day, y’know? Not too complicated. Beer, bag o’ chips and we were set.”

Johnson’s gift is almost the inverse of Penn’s — she can mold her deceptively amateurish naturalism to a surprising variety of roles — and because she has the easier task of being on the receiving end of all that yawping cabbie wisdom, her character arc is ultimately more moving. “Daddio” has pro credits across the board: a bruised neon New York outside the taxi windows courtesy of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”) and a ruefully pretty score by Dickon Hinchliffe (who also scored “Locke”). As for Hall, she may yet deliver a great movie once she stops listening to her own writing and learns to kill off a few darlings.

“Daddio” may stay too long at the fare, but its maker is hardly a hack.

R. At area theaters. Contains language throughout, sexual material and brief graphic nudity. 101 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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