Screenplay : Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (story by Chap Taylor)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Ben Affleck (Gavin Banek), Samuel L. Jackson (Doyle Gipson), Toni Collette (Michelle), Sydney Pollack (Delano), Amanda Peet (Cynthia Banek), Kim Staunton (Valerie Gipson), William Hurt (Gavin's sponsor)
The title of Changing Lanes comes from a crucial incident that takes place on the FDR expressway in New York: Two men, both of whom are desperate to get to the courthouse for different reasons, change lanes at the same time and crash into each other. One leaves behind the other, who finds that he is holding a crucial file folder that literally holds the first man's life in the balance. And so begins one long and very difficult day in which these two men, fueled by bitterness and resentment about the lives they have been leading, lash out at each other in a seemingly endless dance of one-upmanship than can lead nowhere but to their mutual destructions.
One of the men is Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), a 29-year-old attorney who has already made partner in his super-powerful law firm, partially because he's the son-in-law of one of the founding partners (Sydney Pollack), but, more importantly, because he's willing to do their bidding, ethical or otherwise. His reason for getting to court is to present a signed document showing that a now-deceased millionaire had signed over the power of attorney to his multi-million-dollar foundation to Gavin's law firm. The conditions under which this document were signed are highly questionable, and, without it, both Gavin and the other partners are vulnerable to criminal charges of fraud.
The other man is Doyle Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson), who couldn't be any different from Gavin. A recovering alcoholic with anger-management issues, Doyle was on his way to setting his life straight when he crashed into Gavin on the FDR. Having just secured a loan to buy a house in order to rebuild his life with his estranged wife (Kim Staunton) and two young children, the accident causes him to lose 20 crucial minutes, which results in a court decision that virtually guarantees he will never see his children again. Everything he had been working so hard to rebuild is gone—just like that.
At this point, it would seem that Gavin is the "bad guy" and Doyle is the "good guy," but Changing Lanes is far more complicated than that. Rather than being a routine thriller, this films aspires to the level of modern morality play, in which these two men who have been leading deeply flawed lives are forced to come to grips with their missteps in life as they battle each other. The crucial object in their battle is the folder containing the signed document that Gavin needs so badly and Doyle has in his possession. But, this document turns out to be something of a macguffin (Alfred Hitchcock's term for a plot device that ultimately has nothing to do with the actual plot). It sets the narrative in motion, and much of the tension in Changing Lanes is in waiting to see how each man will lash out at the other and what that will reveal about both of their characters. Ultimately, the story is one of raised consciousness, in which Gavin realizes that his life is built on a series of lies (to both himself and to others) and Doyle finally understands that the negative situations in his life are as much his own fault as they are the fault of fate.
Changing Lanes was directed by Roger Michell, whose last film was the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill (1999). Michell seems to have switched gears completely, as he opts for a jittery visual style that relies heavily on hand-held camerawork, close-ups, and extreme shallow focus. He gets in close to his two main characters, allowing Affleck and Jackson to register the extremes of frustration in their eyes. Affleck, who is all-too-often dismissed as a lightweight actor, turns in a fine performance playing a man who has been too comfortable in his shady surroundings. Jackson is just as good, showing sudden flashes of violent rage that suggest exactly why his wife is thinking of moving to Oregon. What is intriguing about him are the extremes of sympathy and fear that he generates--as his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (William Hurt) tells him at one point, he's not addicted to booze, but to chaos.
Granted, there are some elements of Changing Lanes that are a little hard to swallow. Screenwriters Chap Taylor (a first-time scribe) and Michael Tolkin (The Player) pack its 24-hour timeframe until it is almost overstuffed, and they also rely a little too heavily on characters being able to succinctly vocalize exactly what their revelations are, rather than allowing the viewer to figure them out for him- or herself. The moment when Gavin confronts his father-in-law over a late dinner is a scene that is pushed a bit too far, although it has a few striking moments in which his mother-in-law attempts to deflect what is happening, a symptom of a woman who has lived in denial all her life. It is exactly that which Gavin is attempting to avoid, especially since his wife (Amanda Peet) is all too willing to play right along. Changing Lanes is at its most powerful in such moments, when it shows us the complexities of moral decision making in a fast-paced world that leaves little time for such choices, rather than when it tells us.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick