Rated R, 95 min. Directed by Roger Michell. Starring William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Sydney Pollack, Toni Collette, Kim Staunton, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Affleck.
Roger Michell's previous film, the romantic comedy Notting Hill, gave no indication that the director knew his way around the urban suspense drama as well as the harrowing Changing Lanes would indicate. That Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts vehicle was a fluffy bunny in a pet shop window compared to this nihilistic piranha of a film that speaks to both the best and worst aspects of harried city dwellers everywhere. There's more to Changing Lanes than the television spots would indicate. It's a vendetta film, certainly, which places, as one character notes, “two guys in a paper bag and lets 'em rip,” but Michell and first-time screenwriter Chap Taylor infuse the increasingly chaotic bad karma in which the film basks with elements of soiled emotional laundry. The film has no protagonists, just antagonists, and even in the midst of a standoff they're wracked by grave misgivings over their actions and the actions of their fellows. Rarely have I seen a film so willing to champion the fallibility of the human heart. Hollywood, after all, has never been one to encourage self-doubt. It begins innocently enough with a simple act of automotive happenstance when rising young attorney Gavin Banek (Affleck) sideswipes another car on NYC's FDR Drive while rushing to court to deliver an important legal document. The other car is driven by the equally hectic Doyle Gipson (Jackson), on his way to -- we later discover -- the same court to secure visitation rights with his two sons and ex-wife (Staunton). Both men are flustered, but when Doyle asks for Gavin's insurance, the attorney brushes him off with the offer of a blank check, and when that doesn't work gives him a callous “better luck next time” and drives off, leaving the frustrated father alone and carless on the FDR. As it turns out, this little breakdown in the societal pact causes Doyle to miss his court appearance -- and therefore to lose any hope of seeing his kids again -- but it also results in Gavin misplacing those critical court papers, documents so damning that he could conceivably be sent to jail for a very long time. The papers, of course, are now in Doyle's hands, and so begins a nerve-wracking game of what can only be described as mutually assured jerkishness, an escalating game of tit-for-tat that leaves both parties spiritually grimy and battered. What makes this film different from the countless others that have trod similar ground is Taylor's script, which consistently and very believably examines the expanding moral quagmire these two strangers have fallen into together. Doyle, we learn, is a recovering alcoholic with, as friend William Hurt sagely notes, not an addiction to alcohol, per se, but to chaos. His temper is his Achilles' heel. Gavin, similarly, discovers that his firm, headed by the extremely unctuous but terribly civilized Sydney Pollack, is little more than a band of spiritually bankrupt feral cats masquerading as human beings. Amanda Peet has a brief but icily frightening role as his wife, complicit and hungry for more of the good life at any cost. Affleck gives one of his best performances here, as does Jackson. The race card is never played in any obvious manner, as you might expect, but both men are veritable walking shadows by film's end. Doubt and self-recriminations flow through the film like the dirty winter runoff the film's perpetually overcast sky. Salvatore Totino's cinematography, too, has a cold beauty; he makes New York look more cutthroat than it has in years, and it mirrors the stunned look on each man's face when he realized the depths to which he has sunk.
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