Rated R - Running Time: 1:39 - Released 4/12/02

Changing Lanes shows what happens when you take a bad idea and throw talent at it. It succeeds on the merits of its execution, on the technique of Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck (not to mention a surprisingly high-pedigree cast of supporting players), and not its foundation. It's not that Michael Tolkin's screenplay is bad; on the contrary, it has believable dialogue and complex, well-crafted characters, but the story by Chap Taylor, on which it is based, is built on a weak premise. It's about people making mountains out of mole hills, people who willingly choose to have a misunderstanding.

Director Roger Michell, himself changing from the lighthearted romantic comedy lane of Notting Hill to the psychological drama lane, begins his film with a montage of scenes showing us that high-powered Wall St. attorney Gavin Banek (Affleck) and down-on-his-luck telemarketer Doyle Gipson (Jackson) are both basically good guys. Gavin is the legal representative of a multimillion-dollar foundation that supplies musical instruments and playgrounds to low-income New York schools, and Doyle is a recovering alcoholic trying to convince his estranged wife not to move away (with their two young sons) by putting all his credit on the line to buy her a house. But one morning something happens that brings these two strangers together, and brings out the worst in both of them. As they battle their way through rush-hour traffic, both on their way to court, they have a fender-bender on the freeway. Doyle's car is disabled; he asks for a ride, but Gavin leaves him there, stranded, with the insensitive phrase, "Better luck next time." But in his rush to leave, Gavin drops a file he needs for his case. The file is important; not finding it could mean jail. Meanwhile Doyle, who because of the accident is late for his last-chance divorce hearing, loses any hope of reconciling with his wife. But he finds Gavin's file and keeps it, at first not realizing how important it will become.

So begins a psychological game between the two men, with Gavin trying everything he can think of to get the file back, from pleading with Doyle to having his bank accounts frozen, and Doyle not only refusing to return the file, but perpetrating a few other schemes to get revenge. Both have moments of reason, but Doyle has a temper, and Gavin has a mean streak, and the escalation continues, one desperate act sparking another.

This film shows how an event that at first seems insignificant can spiral out of control to the point of insanity. The trouble is believing the first half hour. While we are all aware of the stereotypical "me first" attitudes of New Yorkers, it is unlikely that two reasonable men would not simply trade insurance information and be done with it. After the audience is forced to swallow this very large pill, however, the rest goes down easily. Affleck and Jackson both show considerable insight into human nature with their portrayals of men on the edge, forced into the abyss by the slightest touch. Affleck is becoming used to portraying guys treading the fine line between good and bad (see Bounce, Reindeer Games, Forces Of Nature...), and Jackson takes a role that could really be just a two-dimentional hothead, and makes him human. Also on hand and lending considerable depth are supporting cast members William Hurt (as Doyle's A.A. sponsor), Sydney Pollack (Gavin's boss/father-in-law), Amanda Peet (Gavin's wife), Toni Collette (his lover and co-worker), and Kim Staunton (Doyle's wife). Changing Lanes is a good movie built on a dumb premise. But it's a good movie all the same. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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