"Changing Lanes" is a rarity: a major studio release with a brain, an
ethical thriller about two men whose biggest enemy is not each other,
but their unwillingness to take responsibility for their own actions.
Despite a few problem areas, the richly textured, well-acted production
is one of the few rewarding mainstream films to hit theaters so far this
It starts during morning rush hour in New York City, when Wall Street
lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and insurance agent Doyle Gipson
(Samuel L. Jackson) have a minor traffic accident. After each man
assures that the other is uninjured, Doyle tries to exchange insurance
information, but Gavin, who is due in court, tries to speed things up by
offering a blank check instead. When Doyle, a recovering alcoholic
determined to do things by the book, refuses the offer, Gavin decides to
split. Doyle asks for a ride, but Gavin speeds away, shouting "Better
luck next time" as he leaves the man standing by a car with a flat tire.
Although neither man knows it, they are both headed for the same
building. And what Gavin doesn't realize is that, in his haste, he left
a very important folder behind with the man he just screwed.
The ramifications of the fender-bender are quickly felt. Gavin shows up
in front of a judge minus the only papers that will back up his
company's claim to the estate of a multi-millionaire. He tries to bluff
his way out, but only succeeds in putting himself in legal jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Doyle arrives 20 minutes late for a custody hearing and, as a
result, must listen as the judge grants his estranged wife permission to
move to the other side of the country with his two boys.
Both men are devastated and react in anger. After a phone exchange
between the two dissolves into shouting, Gavin strikes first, getting
the name of a man who "fixes things" from Michelle (Toni Collette), a
co-worker and former mistress. After hacking vital information about
Doyle and preparing to ruin his finances with one keystroke, the fixer
(Dylan Baker) turns to Gavin and says, "Is there any other way?" When
Gavin wonders if any other option exists, he is told, "Sure. Just call
him up and be nice to him." Barely missing a beat, Gavin fixes his eyes
on the keyboard and says, "Do it."
And so the war begins.
What makes the film so fascinating is that the only way either man can
triumph is to recognize his destructive behavior, take responsibility
for his actions and begin to act reasonably. As the retaliatory strikes
escalate, you begin to wonder if either Gavin or Doyle is capable of
such an epiphany.
Working from a screenplay by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, director
Roger Michell slowly, steadily ratchets up the tension level. Instead of
using the traditional whack-you-over-the-head approach, he employs
subtle sound cues and refreshing washes of subdued natural lighting.
Along the way, more and more is revealed about the character of each
Gavin has been so busy pursuing the next brass ring that he never gave a
second thought to ethics. When reminded by his cynical wife (Amanda
Peet) that lawyers at his station spend virtually all their time looking
for ways to cheat, he seems genuinely surprised. Doyle is also lost,
believing that abstinence from drinking equals recovery. At one point,
his frustrated AA sponsor (William Hurt) shouts that his addiction is
not to alcohol, but to chaos.
None of this could work without exceptional acting and every performance
in "Changing Lanes" is top notch. Samuel L. Jackson, a master of
expressing rage, balances the explosive nature of his character with
welcome nuance. He hits all the right notes here. Ben Affleck is just as
good. After appearing in so many comedies and big budget popcorn flicks,
it's easy to forget just how talented an actor he is, but he offers a
fine reminder with a wonderfully measured turn as the desperate
William Hurt makes the most of his brief time onscreen, exhibiting none
of the glibness that periodically taints his work. Playing Doyle's
estranged wife, Kim Staunton adroitly shades her character, making her
more than just another wronged woman. As Gavin's ex-girlfriend and
current wife respectively, Toni Collette and Amanda Peet are equally
impressive. To no surprise, Dylan Baker is excellent, and check out
Sydney Pollack as Gavin's boss - his creates the consummate corporate
shark without ever getting cartoonish.
At times, "Changing Lanes" pushes the edges of credibility. Gavin's
blank check approach to the car wreck, while obviously necessary to
propel the story, still seems an odd thing for a lawyer to do. As for
the law firm that employs him, security seems to be nonexistent at
several key plot points. Finally, without giving anything away, the
wrap-up of the story is a bit too pat for my tastes. Regardless,
"Changing Lanes" is superior fare. Hopefully, it will draw the audience
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott