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Changing Lanes

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 04/11/02 04:11:38

"New Shaft vs. New Jack Ryan Amounts To A Challenging Morality Play"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Changing Lanes, like people coming in and out of one’s life, is something that shouldn’t be brushed off upon early first impressions. You can meet people on a bad day in a choice mood and not get an accurate assessment of what they are really like. They may never smile, seem uninterested, snap at you or not even address you at all. Underneath it all, that man or woman may be a gentle soul and a great heart under the unfortunate strain of the everyday pressures that all of us struggle with from one hour into the next. This new film is a lot like that, presenting itself to us in its ads as a crazy domestic thriller about two men trying to destroy each other, when just underneath it’s an indicting, cynical trip into how crappy our world actually is.

The film opens and introduces us to two men. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a high-powered attorney giving a presentation to a children’s charity with some lurking corporate politics and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) is a telemarketing insurance salesman trying to come up with just the right speech to help sway the judge in the custody battle that may take his family clear across the country. The same morning that Doyle is headed to court, Gavin is also on his way to preside over a major case involving the signing over of said charity to his law firm, when the two men meet in a routine fender bender. As a recovering alcoholic, Doyle insists on making sure he does the right thing in exchanging insurance information. In his haste, Gavin offers Doyle a blank check and with the parting words “better luck next time” leaves him in the rain, in the middle of New York City’s FDR Drive, without a mode of transportation.

When Doyle arrives late to court, the judge dismisses about everything he has to say and rules in favor of his wife. Gavin’s luck turns on him as well as the crucial document he needed to present in court was left at the scene of the accident…in the hands of Doyle. Another chance encounter gives Gavin the opportunity to offer a pathetic apology for the way he handled the situation, but Doyle shrugs him off just as easily informing him that he got rid of the papers. Despondent about his next move, Gavin intends by any means necessary to retrieve the document and deliver it by the judge’s deadline, thus setting off a chain of events in a game of wills with Doyle.

Listening to that set-up, its amazing how easily one can construct an essay on how closely intertwined the links between tragedy and comedy can be. Changing Lanes could have gone the comedic revenge route by having the two protagonists commit increasingly wacky acts of destruction on each other. It could have also found itself going to the dark side to create a truly ugly spectacle of two men at their worst. Where it succeeds so fluently is finding a middle ground in-between that never takes the material too lightly or over calamitous. There is no rooting here for one side over the other. No good guys or bad guys, just a bunch of guys that you can both empathize with and find despicable.

This is first and foremost a morality study finding two men on the path to their own self-destruction, first by simple things like lack of common courtesy and lying and then further by destroying one’s livelihood and possibly even another’s life. But it’s also a representation of how dour and uncompromisingly cruel life can be to us by telling the tale of these two men. The wealthy has certain advantages over the middle-and-lower classes and can use those cards to better their own interest while the disadvantaged can always take the easy way out and resort to violence. A bank can refuse a loan application because the computer tells them to, shooting down the hopes and dreams of a working class citizen. A young idealist can get the dream job he’s been working to achieve through years of schooling and hard work only to find that the world is all about compromises and in the end of the day, all you can do is hope to do more good than bad. Changing Lanes also could have shifted into the fast lane of a racially-charged battle, but race is only introduced once into the story, as a simple ignorance that is just one extra thing to endure on occasion if you are a person of color.

It comes as no surprise that the screenplay was co-written by Michael Tolkin, whose far-reaching cynicism into our world was introduced to us over ten years ago with his Hollywood expose, The Player and his end-of-the-world morality tale, The Rapture. This screenplay, one which I think may find itself studied in film schools, ranks up there in caliber and is deftly handled by director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) who quietly amps up the tension while driving home the film’s high (or more astutely, low) points with heartachingly truthful dialogue passages delivered with precision by all the actors involved.

Samuel L. Jackson who can be both the coolest cat in the room and the most terrifying is at his absolute best here as a man finally getting his life back together yet finds himself a prisoner to his own anger when he has been wronged, unjustly or not. Ben Affleck also gives his best performance since Chasing Amy, never once hamming it up as that cliched hotshot executive type we’re so used to finding young actors attracted to playing. Here he’s quiet, confident, terrified and angry, sometimes all at once and hopefully Affleck will be attracted more to these types of scripts, the kind that originally won him an Oscar in the first place.

Jackson and Affleck may have the center stage in this morality play, but it’s the people around them that drive them to their inevitable destinies. Would you be willing to go toe-to-toe with Sydney Pollack as not only your boss, but also your father-in-law? Pollack doesn’t go the one-dimensional evil headmaster route, but slowly unravels a levelheaded, but frightening amount of layers to the man who controls Gavin’s future. Dylan Baker is thoroughly amusing as a shady businessman who seems to get a big kick out of himself as a man with the power to use a computer for nefarious needs. William Hurt is powerful in just a few scenes as Doyle’s AA sponsor and Toni Collette is perfectly centered as the pillar of ethics in an office of trade-off. But let’s give special credit to Amanda Peet. Just one week after serving as the most pointless character in a lackluster thriller (High Crimes), Peet shows up in the middle of the film for a crucial scene as Gavin’s wife and flawlessly delivers the most devastating monologue in the entire piece. For a near cameo role, it’s a bravura piece of acting.

Changing Lanes only manages to step false in its final five minutes as it would rather leave you with a crooked smile than letting you walk out completely depressed about the world you now have to walk back into. Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly challenging piece of entertainment that is rarely found this early in a movie year, let alone year round. It’s words and performances will stick with you, as will images. (There’s something poetic about a man walking through an empty office with the sprinkler system going off.) While you may not feel optimistic when you leave the theater, there may be something optimistic about realizing what you can do for yourself to make the world at least a little better.

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