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 be 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.
©2002 by Dustin Putman