The simple desire to do what’s right is upended in the morally ambiguous world of “Changing Lanes,” which combines a knack for storytelling with a rare instinct for exploring ideas within the framework of a major, star-driven Hollywood movie. Pic captures the excitement of lightning in a bottle for stars Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson, for tyro screenwriter Chap Taylor (who penned the story) and Brit helmer Roger Michell, who displays an aggressive punch that couldn’t be further from his Blighty outings, such as “Notting Hill.” The fingerprints of co-writer Michael Tolkin also appear throughout, particularly as pic develops into a morality tale in which the meanings of justice and revenge become nebulous indeed. Akin to work fashioned by Paddy Chayefsky, drama may put off a portion of Affleck’s fan base while fully satisfying Jackson’s, producing likely modest B.O. results.
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The key to “Changing Lanes” lies in a paradox: Pacing is that of a propulsive action thriller; yet pic is also notably patient in the manner it establishes and then layers the characters, introducing each additional moral problem at the right moment.
Pic has all the trappings of high-concept moviemaking without the high concept and with highly flawed heroes, which may partly explain the involvement of Michell, whose previous films evince a taste for characters whose actions aren’t always palatable. Script is one of the more intriguing out of Hollywood in awhile, since it prompts curiosity about which writer was responsible for what ideas; certainly, the drama’s obsession with exploring the dark consequences of well-intended behavior would seem to be the mark of Tolkin.
In a stunningly swift nine-minute prelude, the lives of New Yorkers Gavin Banek (Affleck) and Doyle Gipson (Jackson) are brought together. Banek is a hot, rising 29-year-old attorney in the Wall Street firm of Arnell, Delano and Strauss, whose office walls are adorned by Dufy, Rothko and Chagall. Gipson is an insurance company phone rep and an alcoholic whose wife Valerie (Kim Staunton) has divorced him and is planning to take their two young sons to Portland, Ore.
Banek’s assignment on this Good Friday is to handle a pesky probate case involving a trust held by late tycoon Simon Dunne and being disputed by Dunne’s angry granddaughter Mina (Jennifer Dundas Lowe). Gipson is on his way to court to show the judge he has just bought a home in Queens for his ex and kids, in the hopes that the judge won’t let them move to Oregon.
Both start the day brimming with confidence: Banek hosts a public tribute to Dunne’s foundation, and Gipson says at an AA meeting that he isn’t drinking champagne, but that he “feels like champagne.” Each drives to court in a rush, distracted by papers and cell phones, and suddenly they ram their cars into each other’s cars’ sides while jockeying for a lane. Gipson wants to exchange insurance information, but Banek wants instead to write him a blank check for any damages. By rejecting Banek’s offer and wanting to “do the right thing,” Gipson unwittingly sets off an increasingly vicious cycle of tit-for-tat.
With a storytelling efficiency that characterizes the whole film and gets it past several narrative question marks, drama immediately ratchets up for both men. Banek accidentally leaves a crucial file at the crash scene and is berated in court by the judge; Gipson grabs the file Banek left but arrives at his court hearing late and is unable to plead his case convincingly.
Michell, with editor Christopher Tellefsen, conceives a pattern of cross-cutting to parallel the bereft, ill-fated characters’ lives, but the conscious mirroring of circumstances never feels mannered, since underneath it all is a keen consideration of the contrasts of class and, less overtly, race. A less courageous and more politically correct scenario might have tipped aud sympathies in Gipson’s favor, but as the day’s events play out, it’s clear that each side is culpable in a cycle of recrimination.
Banek quickly sinks into a moral sewer, as he lies to his boss and father-in-law Delano (Sydney Pollack) by saying that he won the case; and — worst of all — takes the suggestion of his lover who works at the firm, Michelle (Toni Collette), to hire a hacker (Dylan Baker) who can wipe out Gipson’s credit record and make him bankrupt. This is in reaction to a threatening note Gipson has faxed him concerning the left-behind file. Neither has quite enough time to examine what it is the other, or their self, is doing. It’s up to others in each man’s life to force them to reflect. Gipson must deal with both Valerie and his well-meaning AA sponsor (a low-key William Hurt). Banek has to answer to his wife Cynthia (Amanda Peet), who finds out about his affair and secret dealings at the law firm.
There may be no doubt that this Hatfield and McCoy will jointly find a way to come to a kind of peace. If the film’s quite muted happy ending comes off as a tad contrived, it’s largely because of the dangerous extremes to which each man has pushed the other’s buttons. Still, Michell’s direction concludes the action on a contemplative note that feels right.
Though his role at first plays right into a cocky attitude Affleck all too easily and repeatedly adopts as an actor, the journey into a moral fog compels him to play more inwardly and thoughtfully than he ever has before. By the time his Banek ironically laughs at the naive certitudes of a law grad applying for a job at the firm, Affleck has explored most sides of a young man going through a steep learning curve, resulting in his most thoroughly wrought performance since “Chasing Amy.”
Jackson conveys Gipson’s astonishment at the events and ultimate disappointment at his own weaknesses through the brilliant, quiet form the thesp seems so readily able to muster.Casting is absolute aces up and down the roster, with every scene rounded out with distinctly conceived supporting work from (among others) Collette, Baker, Staunton, Hurt, Peet, Lowe and Pollack, whose Delano is a strikingly close cousin to his doctor in “Eyes Wide Shut.”Elegant production brings forth many moments of unexpected beauty and depth, with an underlying Warren Shaw sound design and a nervous, techno-style score by David Arnold always keeping things on edge. Production designer Kristi Zea creates some amazing, class-conscious interior spaces that teem with city life and wealth, with Salvatore Totino’s widescreen lensing sensitive to every visual opportunity.