CHANGING LANES (director: Roger Michell; screenwriter: Chap Taylor/Michael Tolkin/based on a story by Mr. Taylor; cinematographer: Salvatore Totino; editor: Christopher Tellefsen; music: David Arnold; cast: Amanda Peet (Cynthia), Ben Affleck (Gavin Banek), Samuel L. Jackson (Doyle Gipson),Toni Collette (Michelle, Gavin’s assistant), Sydney Pollack (Cynthia’s father, Mr. Stephen Delano), William Hurt (The AA Sponsor), Kim Staunton (Valerie Gipson), Tina Sloan (Cynthia’s mother. Mrs. Delano), Richard Jenkins (Walter Arnell), Dylan Baker (Fixer, Finch); Runtime: 99; Paramount Pictures; 2002)
“Roger Michell (“Notting Hill“) directs a morality thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roger Michell (“Notting Hill“) directs a morality thriller. The theme loudly played up is about taking responsibility for your own life. It castigates all corporate lawyers with the same tarnished brush, as at least two main characters (Sydney Pollack & Amanda Peet) say that lawyers have little regard for the law but only use it to find ways to cheat and the only kind of lawyer worth his salt is the one who is able to walk a tightrope and claim that he’s done more good at the end of the day than harm.

“Changing Lanes” is a disappointing film that ends in a phony feel-good manner, as two arch enemies for the day do everything but kill each other through most of the story and then suddenly kiss and make-up. The problem with that scenario is that these two troubled individuals were so obnoxious and flawed and filled with anger, that it was difficult to care about them and their difficulties. It was also incredible to see them so suddenly change their combative tunes, and how naive the Wall Street lawyer turned out to be when he acts shocked that he works for an unscrupulous firm.

On of all days, Good Friday, hotshot scheming Wall Street lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and unstable recovering alcoholic with a nasty temper, insurance agent, Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), get into a morning rush hour fender-bender on New York’s FDR Drive when Gavin suddenly changes lanes. Gavin is rushing to be on time for probate court, as he’s representing his father-in-law’s firm in a case involving getting power of attorney for his firm over a well-endowed trusteeship fund whose benefactor is deceased and has been tricked into giving his signature when he was mentally incapacitated. Doyle is also in a rush to get to court to prevent his ex-wife Valerie (Kim Staunton) from taking his 2 sons with her to Oregon and therefore violating his visitation rights, as he plans to show the court that he’s a changed man and has bought them a home in Queens.

The self-centered Gavin can’t even wait to exchange insurance cards because he’s in such a rush and when Doyle refuses Gavin’s offer of a blank check for damages, the hurried lawyer speeds off and refuses to give Doyle a lift — as he stands by his car that has a flat tire. But he accidentally leaves an important court file with Doyle, a file containing the original copy he will need in court to prove the power of attorney signature is authentic.

The upshot is that Doyle arrives too late to plead his case, while Gavin has to tell his oily father-in-law and his firm’s conniving senior partner Walter how he lost the file. Both Gavin and Doyle can’t face the music they are faced with, and plot all kinds of horrible things against each other for the remainder of the religious holiday weekend.

Gavin’s ex-mistress, confidante and work colleague, Michelle (Collette), fixes him up with a dubious character known as the fixer (Dylan Baker), who uses his computer know-how to make Doyle bankrupt and therefore ineligible to get a loan to buy the house. When Gavin pauses for a New York sec with some Christian guilt pangs (after all it is Good Friday), and asks the fixer if there is another way — the fixer says, call him and be nice. But Gavin reacts by saying do it.

Doyle’s adviser is his sponsor (William Hurt) at the AA meetings, who counsels him to straighten out his chaotic life and not go back to his secondary problem of drinking. Gavin’s other counselor besides Michelle, is his wife Cynthia (Peet) who flatly tells hubby their love is cemented by the fact that they both can live very comfortably on the edge of what is ethical. She could have married a tenured professor at Princeton, but tells him she prefers his slick Wall Street personality. Her cold lecture is a warning that if he wants to keep her, he better continue to bring home the bacon.

Gavin wrestles with his conscience and flutters between feelings of guilt and acts of aggression. It was hard to pin down what his character was about. He never seemed to be convincing that he could let go of that ruthless streak in him and he never convincingly showed that he had much character, never mind a depth of character. While Doyle’s change of heart might be just as unconvincing he’s, nevertheless, a more mature actor and makes his role ring with inner tension — something we don’t get from Affleck. Doyle’s a man who is so distraught with life and so stuck on his children, that the only thing that keeps him steady is the banal mantras he was given by his sponsor that he keeps reciting. In his critical moments, if he can say those mantras to himself then he can forestall doing something stupid. His mood swings of generosity and destruction seemed to be a real inward battle and gave this film its few moments of truth.

The supporting actors all offered first-class performances. The acting, save for Affleck’s limp performance, gave this film a chance to succeed. But in the end, this is a film that is too afraid to make the adversaries into winners because of their devil-like energy. Instead there is a sudden benign spiritual awakening for the Affleck character, while the Jackson character regrets that he was provoked into almost killing Affleck in a traffic accident and now seeks out a peace pow-wow. It seemed too pat a solution.

REVIEWED ON 4/18/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”