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Changing Lanes

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Toni Collette, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Sydney Pollack, Bradley Cooper

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

While called to an emergency luncheon by his own wife Cynthia (Amanda Peet), Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) gets the word from Cynthia that she knew all about her husband's dalliance with a co-worker (Toni Collette) but was willing to live with that because she loves him. She also shows herself to be as bourgeois as her parents, (Sydney Pollack and Tina Sloan) by impressing on him the detail that she married him largely because he was an upcoming, Wall Street attorney. "I could have married a professor of Middle English at Princeton University, if he had tenure," she cautions, and without her or possibly scripters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin's realizing, by citing Middle English she announces the theme of the film. "Changing Lanes" reads like a medieval morality tale, "Everyman," for example, the story of people each of whom represents a moral aspect. But while "Everyman" would be a crashing bore for a modern audience, director Roger Michell avoids casting his performers as people with labels on their chests such as "true justice," or "reforming alcoholic" or "shyster lawyer" or "wandering husband." Each of Michell's characters, in fact, represents a complexity of traits, each aspect making war on the others within the individual's own head. Ultimately there are no good guys and bad guys, but people just like us...somewhat flawed but in the end proving that they, like the rest of us, are hard-wired for doing the right thing, for changing the lanes of their lives.

The movie has its share of action as well, nothing gratuitous this time. To the credit of a big budget film studio, here is an intelligent, complex, credibly acted and ethically grounded work of the sort we're more likely to find at the art houses around the country rather than at the local mutiplexes. As editor Christopher Tellefson edits with a strong hand, cutting frequently from one principal character to the other to show the ways their lives both mesh and diverge, we're treated to a thinking person's movie that will not have the audience leaving the theater discussing nothing more important than where they're going to eat.

An auto accident brings together people who would usually be from different worlds. Attorney Gavin Banek collides with insurance agent Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) on New York's FDR Drive. Both are in a hurry for important meetings. Gavin must be in court in minutes to present a probate judge with documents that will confirm the legitimacy of a trusteeship won by his law firm. Doyle similarly has an appointment in court to win custody or at least strong visitation rights to see his two children, a demand that his estranged wife, Valerie (Kim Staunton), contests. In fact she is moving clear across the country to Portland to be far from her husband and perhaps to meet another man whose behavior would be more stable than that of a recovering alcoholic with a mean temper. When Gavin simply hands Doyle a blank check to fix his car, stating to a stunned Doyle that he's in a hurry and has no time to exchange papers, he accidentally leaves an important court file with Doyle, one whose recovery will determine the outcome of a probate case involving millions.

Though both men would do the right thing under other circumstances, wires get crossed. Doyle refuses to return the file and Gavin takes illegal steps to mess up Doyle's life pending the return of the document.

The plot itself, then, is not unduly complex. There is some physical violence, as when Doyle insults and then punches out two guys in a bar, but most of the conflicts are psychological ones which in this case are more anxiety-producing that a car crash at twenty miles per hour or a couple of punches to the face would evoke.

As Gavin, recently made a partner in the law firm of his father- in-law, discusses his problems with the older man, we are led into an ever-widening intrigue that makes us question whether hotshot lawyers are even more corrupt than we have always thought they were; whether most rich people gained their money by dishonesty somewhere along the line; whether pure idealism is preferable to, or even possible in, this imperfect world. The only people in the story who believe in some utopian life that The Law would manage to give us are a couple of scrubbed seniors in law school, whose visions are so lofty that they provide comic relief in a story that features two strong-willed people battling each other without resort to fists. Director Roger Michell, known principally for the film "Notting Hill," scores by eliciting sincerely felt performances from both principals and supporting players. He has the audience debating Stephen Delano's summing up of his profession: "At the end of the day, I do more good than harm. What other standard have I got?" Do you agree that this is all that the good life demands of you?

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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