Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, Sydney Pollock, William Hurt, Dylan Baker
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/12/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
At a time when Hollywood movies want to play it safe, Changing Lanes is a refreshing and unexpected experience, rife with ideas and observation. The film is a modern morality play with the simple lesson of learning to take responsibility for your own actions. Itís really all about moralityówhatís right, whatís wrong, and the way personal perspectives can blur the line between the two with terrifying results. Taking the initial setup of a thriller, the screenplay by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin forces a confrontation between two menófrom two completely walks of life but both at the end of their respective ropesóand watches what happens. Itís not an observation of reality but reality to an exponential level, and the characterís conflict escalates at a similar rate. Both men give into their desperation, and itís important to ask if either of them is right. The answer is a resounding no. Neither of these characters is a hero. Each is so completely resolute that he is right or was wronged by the other that he makes every possible wrong decision to fix the problem.
The two men are Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), a recently added partner at a large law firm, and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), a recovering alcoholic who is in the process of finalizing his divorce. Both men are both on their way to courtóBanek to settle a very lawsuit about the control of a deceased manís charity fund and Gipson to try and convince his wife to stay in New York instead of moving to Oregon with their two children. Banekís case is an easy win, as all he needs to do is show up and present a series of files to the court. Gipson has just been approved for a loan so he can buy a house for his wife and children. Driving to their respective appointments, they are both involved in an accident. An impatient and rushed Banek wants to move things along as quickly as possible, and instead of exchanging information as Gipson wants, he gives him blank check and leaves him on the expressway with a flat tire ("Better luck next time!"). Gipson is late for the hearing and loses custody of his children but finds himself in possession of one of Banekís files, and the judge gives Banek until the end of the day to present that file to the court.
Here the script pulls the simple gimmick of the film, and Gipson uses the file as a way to torture Banek for, as he sees it, ruining his life. Instead of taking this basic structure and conflict to elicit cheap thrills, the film uses the setup and allows the conflict to escalate from its characters. Gipson starts out on a vendetta, keeping the file from Banek as punishment. His reasoning: This man took what may have been the most important twenty minutes of my life, and he deserves to pay for it. Once Banek understands that Gipson is resolved in keeping the file, he frantically tries to find ways to scare Gipson into giving in. The file is incredibly important to Banek. It could cost him his job (at first he lies to the other partners about what happened at court) and, with later revelations, could land him in jail. Add to that the time restriction, and it leaves an utterly desperate man. These are entirely self-centered motivations, but the film is smart in not portraying him as a villain. Gipson is equally self-centered, leaving a viewer expecting a distinctly defined line between good and bad for these characters with a problem. At first itís easy to dislike the Affleck character and root for Jacksonís, but itís equally easy to forget that the men are equally self-centered and self-preserving. Oneís problem seems just as important as the otherís must seem to him, and the conflict essentially lies in a clash of ideals.
One of the most startling surprises of the film is that it actually contains ideas like this, and moreover, it isnít afraid to confront and examine them. These characters have thoughtful, intelligent discussions about morality, the existence of a social contract, and humanity. Then we see of different examples of the way people live according to these principles and concepts. Banek and Gipson are decent people. Banek is trapped in a lifestyle based on his chosen profession. Heís not content with it either, and as the day progresses, the moral dilemma that arises serves as an impetus for change. On the other end of the spectrum is his boss, played by Sydney Pollock. This is a man who has done much worse than Banek, but heís lived longer and has found a way to rationalize his dishonesty. We can see Banek on a similar road, as is shown through a conversation with his wife (also his bossí daughter), but his conscience is still functioning. Gipson, on the other hand, starts off sympathetic, but through his actions we learn he still is in need of growth. Gipson may have stopped drinking, but his behavior is still destructive, which is constantly displayed throughout the film. It ultimately leads to a scene where Gipsonís sponsor (played by William Hurt) tells him that heís "addicted to chaos," a line that would probably sound awful anywhere else but that makes perfect sense here.
Both Affleck and Jackson turn in top-notch performances to match the intensity of the material. Affleck has a very tricky performance. His character could easily be seen as the villain, but Affleck balances a level of cockiness and internal conflict that allows us to always think thereís something below his assured appearance. Jackson who is exceptional at portraying a deep-seated rage is given much more depth to work with. Both the actors and the screenwriters are well aware that a personís character is defined more by what he/she does than by what he/she says. Take these actions to the extremes depicted here, and you have a fascinating look at the cycle of human frailty. Itís all of these elements that make Changing Lanes a challenging, thought-provoking experience.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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