Changing Lanes
Director: Roger Michell. Cast: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Staunton, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Amanda Peet, Richard Jenkins, Dylan Baker, Matt Malloy, William Hurt, Tina Sloan, John Benjamin Hickey. Screenplay: Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin.

One of the stupidest things I do on this website is supply letter grades as a means of "rating" the movies I watch. As I have attempted to explain elsewhere, the device is mostly useful for those readers who want a quick indicator of "To Rent or Not To Rent," but of course the strategy of tagging movies as though they were pop quizzes is ripe with absurdity. And Changing Lanes is exactly the sort of film that resists and belies the tactic, because it's a far more interesting movie—and therefore a far more frustrating disappointment—than the "grade" is likely to communicate. In particular, the first hour of Changing Lanes is hypnotic. The car accident that introduces Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), an unctuous young lawyer, and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), a desperate divorcé and recovering alcoholic, reprises the theme of urban coincidence most recently familiar from a spate of films—Sliding Doors, Run Lola Run, Serendipity, Amélie—that have placed the phenomena of chance meetings and missed encounters in a larkish context of romantic fancy. Changing Lanes is the rare Hollywood film that remembers that half of people's lives are spent in the "real world" of offices, bureaucracies, paperwork procedures, haggles over custody. The freakishness of a split-second event is much more likely to induce professional hardship and practical entanglements than to reveal or conceal Mr. and Ms. Right.

So, right from its concept, I was intrigued by Changing Lanes. The way in which frenzied corporate ambition distorts ethical reasoning is a fascinating and urgent theme for current filmmaking, and Ben Affleck, whose character confronts exactly this dilemma, has already hinted powerfully in Boiler Room that his own narcissistic screen persona is perfect for this kind of material. The slippery borders among economic, parental, and moral desperation is also a fertile plot for storytelling impulses, and though Samuel L. Jackson is a priceless embodiment of Cinematic Cool, it is refreshing and energizing to watch him craft a more mundane, world-riven character than his Tarantino-land hepcats. The two actors work well together, but in very different styles, which only adds to the sharp texture of their exchange. And it is shocking how quickly and nimbly the screenplay eases a situation of rash behavioralism into a high-stakes game of economic and social power-playing. British director Roger Michell, better known for the prim pleasures of Persuasion and Notting Hill (he was also the first director assigned to Captain Corelli's Mandolin), has certainly got the hang of the steeper inclines on the American social ladder.

At a certain point in the narrative, however, the friction between Affleck's and Jackson's characters starts to degenerate into something blander, more artificial-seeming: it is clear that this movie was, after all, made in Hollywood, and rather than sustaining a snapshot of institutionalized mistrust and panic in America, Changing Lanes is going to devote its energy to devising resolutions, virtually all of them false, to its admirably chaotic plot. Near the third act, the tense compositions of Salvatore Totino's camera start proliferating with all sorts of crucifixes and glib religious imagery—not that religious imagery is by definition glib (of course it isn't), but the kinds of anxiety and conflict we have witnessed between and within Gavin and Doyle has nothing to do with Christic suffering. It's a false metaphor, and so the fact that the movie drops this leitmotif as suddenly as it was introduced is either to the filmmakers' credit (they realized they were cheating) or to their detriment (why did they bother in the first place?). Plotlines and narrative ornaments that seemed teasingly elliptical—a secret file in the boss's office, an adulterous affair within the office, a sketched-out friendship between Jackson's character and his AA sponsor, played by William Hurt—turn out to be dead ends, or red herrings. And that category of "narrative ornaments" comes to include, I am sad to report, every single female character in the movie. Toni Collette and Amanda Peet are, from their first appearances, transparent plot mechanisms, though Collette has the thespian goods to enliven and unsettle the stereotype of Ambivalent Love Object in ways that Peet can't manage with her soulless, shallow, Bridget-Fonda-in-A Simple Plan role as the Cynical Ball-Breaking Wife. The best performance in the picture is that of Kim Staunton as Doyle's exhausted, increasingly independent wife, but even she is stripped of her integrity and free-standing qualities as a character once the film sells out to some vague rhetoric of male solidarity and na´veté unraveled.

So, as dramaturgy, Changing Lanes is in the final analysis a botch: it's speeding along impressively in the left lane for a good 70 minutes before swerving fatally onto an exit ramp that leads nowhere. The talented crew (editor Christopher Tellefsen and production designer Kristi Zea are crucial to the movie's nerviness) cannot compensate for a story that loses its convictions, and the product is aesthetically compromised. But as a sign of the times—a symptom of a masculine, money-driven industry compulsively blurting out a morality tale about fear, money, and masculinity—Changing Lanes is quietly fascinating. I wouldn't say it is a better film than much of what we've seen at the springtime multiplex in 2002, but it's infinitely more worth holding onto than Panic Room or The Mothman Prophecies, because it has something to say to us, and for a while at least, it says it. C+


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