Changing Lanes

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CHANGING LANES

4/10

USA 2002 : Roger Michell : 98 mins

“[The] fairytale that the good end well and the bad end poorly – do you believe that?” This is the question asked by an at-the-end-of-his-tether Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) midway through Changing Lanes. And the viewer’s response will dictate whether they’ll go along with this clunky civics lesson posing as a modern morality play. Because the film really is a fairytale, for all its veneer of urban Manhattan grit – plausibility flies out of the window very early on, when a minor road-traffic accident on the F D Roosevelt Freeway sets of a rapidly escalating chain of unlikely consequences.

The drivers are Banek, a hot-shot attorney speeding to court, and Gipson (Samuel L Jackson), an insurance salesman heading to the same destination for a custody hearing. While Gipson is keen to exchange proper insurance details after the scrape, Banek hasn’t time to play ball, resulting in an argument and Banek’s hasty departure from the scene. But the hassled lawyer has left behind an especially crucial file – and after Gipson turns up too late for the hearing, he plots revenge.

Each stage in Banek and Gipson’s feud relies on crude coincidence, flimsy psychological motivation, or, more usually, both at the same time. We’re presumably supposed to read the conflict as a fable, a vehicle for the ambitious ideas latent in Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin’s screenplay, which takes commendable aim at the sleazy malpractices of the legal world (“a big, vicious rumble”) and, by implication, the cynical immorality that blights so much of modern life.

These commendably serious points are, however, slightly hard to swallow coming from a major Hollywood (multinational-subsidary) studio like Paramount. And they’re repeatedly undermined by the distractingly improbable convolutions employed to negotiate Banek and Gipson through what’s presumably intended as a three-dimensional moral maze. This is all in direct contrast to The Game, which turned implausibility into a virtue by exposing its ‘hero’ as a pawn whose actions can be controlled and precisely predicted by external powers.

Changing Lanes is more optimistic – as the title suggests, it says that people do have the power to choose how their lives will progress. But then it complicates matters: compressing the story into a single day is a matter of standard dramatic licence – but this isn’t just any old day. It’s Good Friday, one of countless religious references inserted (in both dialogue and production-design) with the aim of giving the protagonists’ struggles some spiritual depth. It doesn’t wash – we’re a very long way from classic British gangland thriller The Long Good Friday, in which the inflated ego of Bob Hoskins’ crime-boss was systematically dismantled along with his seedy criminal empire, the process taking on a darkly ironic air by its implicitly juxtaposition with Christ’s sufferings.

Changing Lanes, however, culminates with Banek not only achieving redemption for himself, but also “taking everything on [his own] shoulders,” in the admiring words of his colleague Cynthia (Toni Collette, wasted in a nothing role). After enduring Banek’s dizzying moral oscillations, it’s asking a little much to suddenly see him as the Christ-like figure this line of dialogue implies. Affleck’s 24-hour transition from grinning, overfed yuppie to shellshocked moral warrior is a far enough journey – American Jesus is a step too far.

22nd October, 2002
(seen same day, UCI MetroCentre, Gateshead)

by Neil Young
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