Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Re-viewing Changing Lanes, Because I Just Can't Help Myself!

The Good: Decent acting, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Repetitive plot
The Basics: Worth watching once, Changing Lanes tells a predictable story about two men who just can't help but attack one another over minor things for a day.

Have you ever watched a movie, then years later looked for your review of it, only to discover you never wrote one? Lately, I have been finding that happening more and more. So when I discovered I had never written a review for the film Changing Lanes, I found myself stopping and asking, "What DID I think of that movie when I saw it oh so long ago?!" This necessitated a second viewing . . .

. . . and I remembered. Changing Lanes was one of those films I didn't know how I felt about it after I was done with it. I recall at the time there being a lot of hype about it and a number of people being quite excited about the film, the characters and the performances, but now - having seen it twice - I am fairly sure it does not live up to the hype. Sometimes, years after a film creates a stir, it is fun to go back and check it out, devoid of packaging, hype, merchandising, etc. I wonder, for example, how Mystic River and My Big Fat Greek Wedding would hold up in the market now . . .

Changing Lanes is a generally tense drama about the power of revenge, the importance of doing the right thing and the struggle to get by in the world when bad things happen to us. It is a morality play and either a cautionary tale demanding one do the right thing from the outset or a simple story of escalating revenge between two men who get into a pissing match of sorts for an entire day.

Doyle Gipson is driving to the custody hearing where he is representing himself in an attempt to keep even partial custody of his children when his ex-wife threatens to move the kids across the country when his car is hit by Gavin Banek. Gavin is a lawyer who is feeling a bit of stress as his law firm has been bilking a charitable trust that Gavin himself got a dying man to establish. Gavin is rushing to court to produce documents to take the teeth out of a lawsuit against his firm when he is distracted and runs Doyle off the road. Feeling pressured, Gavin flees the scene of the accident, delaying Doyle from his hearing and losing the important file in the process.

Doyle recovers the file and misses his court date, losing his children to his ex-wife. Distraught, he teeters on the edge of falling off the wagon when he is contacted by Gavin. Seeing that Gavin is desperate to get the file back, Doyle recovers it. As he battles with himself over whether to simply return the file or to exact a price for it, Gavin seeks out corrupt individuals who know how to work the system to squeeze Doyle into compliance. When Doyle's credit is turned off, causing him to lose his bid on the house he was buying for his children, Doyle and Gavin escalate their attacks upon one another.

Changing Lanes is a real tough movie to figure out, not in terms of plot or morality, but as to whether or not it truly is a decent film. The plot is obvious and problematic, the characters are largely unlikable and their actions are reprehensible throughout most of the movie. But it is very well acted, the film is going somewhere and the DVD extras are surprisingly thick for a drama of this type. It makes it tough to sell the film to a potential audience.

First, then, the plot. Changing Lanes is a pretty classic story of escalation and conflict. Doyle acts, Gavin reacts, Doyle is put on the defensive, Gavin attacks, Doyle prepares to capitulate, Gavin surrenders, Doyle sneaks in another punch, Gavin punches back harder. Plotwise, this is hardly a new movie. Whenever it seems like peace might break out, like Gavin might give up or try doing the right thing, he goes the other way, which forces Doyle to respond in kind as opposed to following his better instincts.

The thing is, this is a very plot-thin movie because the characters truly do move the film, which is part of what makes it so very agonizing to watch. Just when the viewer thinks that things might go in a humane direction, Gavin does something even more atrocious. Doyle, as a result, spends much of the movie reacting to Gavin's bad behavior. This is in no way an excuse for how Gavin acts, but on his own, he does seem much more likely to do the right thing and try to be a decent fellow.

Sadly, this is a very masculine movie and as a result, rationality quickly leaves the picture. And on the character front, there are only two truly wonderful moments that surprise a seasoned movie veteran like myself. The first involves Gavin, who finds himself in a church fairly late in the movie. Gavin, not a Catholic, is given a moment to confess his sins and learn and grow from his mistakes. What makes the moment so truly wonderful and surprising is that he does not receive his catharsis and instead, he leaves the church and does something even more heinous, which completely undermines the predictable plot and the conventions of the story as it is being told. In other words, at one of the last possible moments, the story zigs when good money says it would zag; a movement made by the characters.

The other surprisingly wonderful character element comes from one of the secondary characters. Amanda Peet - one of my favorites on screen - has what basically amounts to a cameo in Changing Lanes as Gavin's wife, Cynthia, daughter of one of the partners at the firm Gavin works at. Cynthia appears all sweet and nice (an easy task for Peet) but pushes Gavin toward the lesser angels of his nature. In Cynthia's monologue, she discusses how she knew exactly who she was marrying when she married Gavin and I recall being horrified the first time I saw Changing Lanes. On the second viewing, though, I took strange comfort in the scene and in Cynthia's character. I suspect I took such comfort because unlike the two male protagonists who are blinded by a stupid rage, Cynthia is smart and she sees the world clearly, for what it is. She comes to the relationship in a position of power and she actually offers a strange clarity in the truth that she does not want Gavin to be soft, weak or uncorrupt. That purity of character actually reads as remarkably true and intelligent and it is refreshing to see in a film filled with characters who are otherwise doing terrible things.

It helps that Peet is a good enough actress to sell the emotional intensity and underlying intelligence of Cynthia. She joins a cast of supporting actors that is quite extraordinary, including Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack and Richard Jenkins. All of the supporting cast, given the chance, shines for their moment on screen, adding the sense that this is a very real world and all of their characters have extensive backstory to them.

Ben Affleck gives a decent performance as the high-powered, very stressed lawyer Gavin. He is moody and his laughs are more nervous than sincere, insinuating a moral core that is seldom actually shown in the movie. Affleck's body language transforms over the course of the movie from a stiff, literally upstanding, guy into a haggard, fellow and he is quite able to pull the transformation off well.

But it is Samuel L. Jackson who makes Changing Lanes worth watching. Jackson comes to the role projecting a quiet desperation into Doyle that he is able to play out amazingly. Jackson emotes very well using just his eyes and there are moments where director Roger Michell capitalizes upon this, simply focusing on Jackson in quiet moments and letting his body language speak. Jackson is able to portray conflict without speaking and he is amazing in this role, which is not quite like anything else he did before or since.

Am I glad I saw Changing Lanes? Yes. Am I glad I saw it twice? No. Changing Lanes is one of those "see it once, take it as it is" type movies. So, I recommend it, but only for one viewing. I'm not suggesting anyone buy it. After all, once in a lifetime for some things is enough.

For other works in which Matt Malloy appears, please visit my reviews of:
The Bounty Hunter
Couples Retreat
Six Feet Under - Season Five
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Finding Forrester
State And Main


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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