Any film bearing the tag line “One wrong turn deserves another” seems crying out to have that bit of ad copy flipped around in a review, but the gritty drama “Changing Lanes” doesn’t entirely allow itself to such a glib put-down. While Roger Michell’s film does indeed take a bad detour in its home stretch, it is on the whole a brisk and absorbing morality play.
Perhaps a more accurate term would be “immorality play,” for the film traces one long day in which two men engage in an ever-escalating battle of nasty one-upsmanship. The lives of slick young attorney Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and insurance agent Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) literally come crashing together on a New York City highway. Gavin, wrapped up in his personal concerns–namely, a pressing court date–drives away from the accident scene without leaving his insurance information with Doyle, let alone offering the stranded man a lift. What Gavin does leave with Doyle, albeit inadvertently, is an important case file that he is ordered to recover by the end of the day.
Doyle doesn’t make such a simple task easy for him, for Gavin’s selfishness forces Doyle to miss an important child custody hearing with his estranged wife (Kim Staunton). Doyle tells Gavin that he wants his time back in exchange for the file, but as pride and misunderstanding quashes any stray compassionate thought and prods each man to retaliate against the other in increasingly dramatic ways, just exactly what one wants from the other gets lost in the cruel posturing.
The moral ambiguity of the characters is the chief strength of the screenplay by Chap Taylor and Michæl Tolkin; there is no clear cut good or bad guy in the piece. With no less than his family, financial health, and sobriety at stake, it’s easy to side with Doyle, who is clearly the victim of Gavin’s foolishly flip action (or, rather, inaction). However, given the irrational behavior he continually exhibits as the film progresses, one can see why his wife would want to protect their children for him. Similarly, Gavin is revealed to be a sleaze not so much by nature than by nurture. Gavin is joined to his high-powered firm not only professionally, but personally as well–his boss (Sydney Pollack) is also his father-in-law–and hence any unethical influence is exerted on him that much more strongly. Whenever Gavin’s conscience leads him on the brink of a selfless decision–which is more often than one would suspect–there’s always someone all too eager to set him back on a shady course. The details in characterization make the preposterous progression of events believable.
Also helping immeasurably in that area are the actors; these are meaty, demanding roles, and both above-the-title stars are up to the challenge, using their signature screen personæ to their advantage. Jackson effortlessly wins audience sympathy early on, but the volcanic rage for which he is known can always be felt bubbling under the surface, lending a dangerous undercurrent to his character’s growing desperation. Smirky cockiness has become Affleck’s onscreen signature, and in the early stages he intensifies it to nicely smarmy effect–and the extremes of the act make sense when it becomes apparent that he is actually much more vulnerable person, more or less conditioned into such an oily mode of behavior.
One of the main themes of “Changing Lanes” is the evil nature of the world and how easily it can corrupt people, but leave it to Tinseltown to provocatively address such an issue and then clean up its moral mess with a needlessly tidy sign of hope at the close. Michell would have been wiser to instead go with the more bitter, better ending note that comes about five minutes prior to the existing conclusion, but perhaps it’s expecting too much from a major Hollywood production to carry out its story’s inherent cynicism straight through to the end. As it stands, though, “Changing Lanes” already exceeds expectations, provoking serious thought while skillfully telling a compelling, character-driven story.