Here is a film in which its theatrical trailer does not even come
close to doing justice to the surprisingly mature, thought-provoking
treatment the story gets. As the ads suggest, "Changing Lanes," directed
by Roger Michell (1999's "Notting Hill"), does include aspects of
a Hollywood-style thriller, but to label it as such would be to cheapen
the truthful emotional impact the film holds.
Set almost entirely on Good Friday, Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a
high-powered Manhattan lawyer who unknowingly has sold his soul in
exchange for a rising bank account. On his way to the courthouse to
present an original legal document that will save his career, and
the law firm he works for, from jeopardy, he is involved in a fender-bender
on the FDR with recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson).
In too much of a rush to exchange insurance with Doyle, Gavin leaves
him stranded on the road with a flat tire. His radical behavior not
only costs Doyle, who was also headed for a court date, joint custody
of his two young children, but Gavin realizes upon arrival that he
must have accidentally left the required document with Doyle. Given
an ultimatum of presenting the file to the court or risking jail time,
tensions escalate with Gavin determined to get back his file from
Doyle, and Doyle determined to teach Gavin a lesson about common human decency.
It is easy to see how such a story could have been transformed into
an exploitive, cliched mainstream thriller had the wrong hands gotten
hold of it. Under the watchful eyes of director Michell and intelligent
screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (1998's "Deep Impact"),
however, "Changing Lanes" is first and foremost a provocative study
of the human condition. While thoroughly arresting throughout, the
makers wisely shift the focus away from action set-pieces (there are
very few to be found) and toward aspects that should always been a
necessity, but rarely are, such as character development and powerful underlying themes.
The redemption Gavin Banek goes through as the film unfolds is one
of its most indelible elements. Seen as a narrow-minded money-grubber
at the beginning, Good Friday for Gavin turns into a life-changing
day that eventually brings him to opening his eyes to the person he
has become, and being appalled by what it sees. When Gavin admits
to his senior partner and father-in-law (Sydney Pollock) that he has
lost the file required to get the firm out of hot water, Pollock demands
that he forge a replica and hand it in. The moral implications of
such, intermixed with the corruption involved in working at the law
firm and Gavin's transformation, are handled in a fully challenging
way that never once talks down to the viewer.
Doyle Gipson is just as fascinating a character as Gavin. At heart,
Doyle is a father who almost seems like a little kid himself. Battling
the demons of alcohol addiction and the possibility of having his
sons permanently taken away from him, Doyle is an inherently good
person who can never seem to have anything good happen in his life.
He is a man at the end of his rope who is coming progressively close to snapping.
Ben Affleck (2001's "Pearl Harbor") has never had a role with such
depth and maturation as Gavin has. Affleck, too often overlooked for
his good looks, is captivating from start to finish, seemingly bearing
the darkest reaches of his soul to do full justice to the character.
Every note he plays is key-perfect, including one scene set in a church
confessional, and a climactic one in which he faces off with his wife
(Amanda Peet) and father-in-law after deciding, once and for all,
the difference between right and wrong.
As Doyle, Samuel L. Jackson (2000's "Shaft") is remarkably touching
in a part far from his usual roles. Whereas Jackson usually plays
characters with big personalities and showy demeanors, here he is
asked to portray someone who is quietly imploding both on the inside
and out. Like Affleck, Jackson doesn't take a wrong step in bringing
Doyle to life. Credit director Michell for opting to not present either
lead as a villain, but both as alternately sympathetic and flawed human beings.
The supporting cast is exceptional, each one making an impression
no matter how small the screentime. Sydney Pollack (1999's "Eyes Wide
Shut") and William Hurt (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"),
as Doyle's concerned AA representative, give memorable turns as, in
essence, Gavin and Doyle's father figures. After just criticizing
her loopy role and acting in "High Crimes," Amanda Peet has managed
to do a 180-degree turn to deliver a focused and poignant performance
as Cynthia Banek, Gavin's wife, who finally discloses why she really
married him. As Doyle's long-suffering wife, Kim Staunton (2002's
"Dragonfly") is heartbreakingly real. And finally, Toni Collette (1999's
"The Sixth Sense") brings unpredictable layers to the potentially
underwritten role of Gavin's assistant and sometimes-mistress, Michelle.
As "Changing Lanes" moves sure-footedly toward its finale, it does
not falter or cheat, as so many movies of its ilk usually do. Instead,
the characters and their realistic predicaments are left to work themselves
out, for better or worse. By the time the film's last two affecting
scenes arrive--one set at dinner between Gavin and his in-laws, and
the other played to Annie Lennox's gorgeous song, "Waiting in Vain"--it
came as something of a shock how much Affleck and Jackson, along with
director Michell's aid, had gotten me to deeply feel for Gavin and
Doyle, and the movie they were in. "Changing Lanes" is one of the
best motion pictures of the year.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman