New York movies inevitably take on one of two distinct personas: cheery, vibrant, perky movies that say, "Come to New York, this is where it's at!" or downbeat, concrete jungle sagas that groan, "God, I just need to get out of the city for a while." After 9-11, we haven't seen a whole lot of that side of the Big Apple, but with Changing Lanes, the darker side of the grand old lady makes it's appearance once again.
Lanes shows a New York that is sodden and dreary. It is constantly raining, and everything has a slightly muted feel. Post-attack, it almost seems unfair to portray the city this way, but we can't wear rose-colored glasses forever. The movie, which was actually filmed pre-September 11, as evidenced by a fleeting shot of the twin towers in the background that the digital effects people had the good sense not to edit out, is both a tense drama and a thought provoking essay on our oft-times deluded self-image and how our priorities effect the decisions we make. What kind of people are we, this film asks? And how likely are we to turn into Michael Douglas from Falling Down when our carefully balanced house of cards begins to crumble around us? It says a lot about a movie that what could have easily been little more than a character driven action piece evokes so much more.
The two Everymen who inhabit the aforementioned shaky edifice are Kevin Baneck and Doyle Gibson, a high-powered attorney, and a low-powered insurance telemarketer, respectively. Kevin, played by Ben Affleck, considers himself a good person. He's worked hard, married well (the boss's daughter, no less), and has risen through the ranks of his firm to become partner, all the while keeping his scruples intact. He does not allow himself to ask the hard questions about why his firm is so eager to wrest control of a wealthy client's charitable foundation from the late philanthropist's daughter. It's all for the good of the foundation, he tells himself over and over whenever his pesky conscience tries to raise it's head. He is still telling himself this as he embarks to the court to deliver the final blow - a file containing a signed document which seals the deal. Samuel L. Jackson is Doyle, a recovering alcoholic who is struggling to get his life back together. He is in the process of buying a modest, rundown townhouse for his ex-wife and two sons, in the hopes that they won't move to Oregon and disappear from his life forever. He is on the way to the custody hearing to present this very plan when he and Kevin meet unexpectedly and ultimately, destructively.
These two men, equally desperate in their own ways, are at a crossroads. The off-ramp on the FDR where their accident takes place and the file gets switched is more than just a change of lanes, it's a turning point for them both. Doyle sees this custody hearing as his last real shot at redemption. The AA meetings are working, but so much wrong could be undone if he can just turn it around here. Kevin, on the other hand, is on a different kind of round-a-bout. This delivery will destroy the last vestige of decent humanity within him. He doesn't know it, but that file represents his final transformation into a corporate raider, a greedy despot who justifies using the law as his own personal treasure chest by occasionally making time for pro-bono cases.
There is a creepy, almost sadistic feeling enjoying a movie where two men's lives are so terribly torn apart. It is only by random chance that the two characters ever came into contact in the first place, and at one point Ben Affleck even opines, "Sometime's God just puts two guys in a paper bag and lets 'em go at it." This almost makes sense when you consider that Doyle and Kevin work each other over like God testing Job. Any particulars might spoil the suspense, so I'll leave it at that.
The acting in this movie is excellent. Samuel Jackson is perfect playing slightly unhinged, yet angrily dignified. Watching him fall apart is thrilling and sad. Ben Affleck is also very good. There were no traces of Armageddon or Reindeer Games in his performance, rather he is more reminiscent of his character in the highly underrated Bounce. There are several other fairly big names/small roles in this film, but stealing every scene she is in is the relatively unknown Kim Staunton, as Doyle's estranged ex-wife. For such a small role, Staunton was riveting portraying quiet dignity, wounded pride, and an almost feral protective instinct for her children. I hope this gets her some larger roles.
For all it's cold, wet, dark atmosphere, Changing Lanes has a very positive message at the heart. What we do affects other people in ways we can't even imagine. We are all programmed to act and react, sometimes with dire consequences, but we don't have to slavishly follow the path layed out in front of us. It's never too late to change. Grade: A
Changing Lanes is rated R for language and mild violence.
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