2002-04-18 / Arts & Entertainment

"Changing Lanes" Stalls Despite ‘Skillful’ Performances

"Changing Lanes" Stalls Despite ‘Skillful’ Performances

Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Ben Affleck in  "Changing Lanes." Kerry HayescParamount PicturesSamuel L. Jackson (left) and Ben Affleck in "Changing Lanes." Kerry HayescParamount Pictures

By David Germain

AP Movie Writer

This episode of "Manhattanites Behaving Badly" is called "Changing Lanes," the story of two odious men who turn an expressway crackup into a daylong, cat-and-mouse vendetta of sustained road rage.

Underlying director Roger Michell’s thriller are positive sentiments about venting human weakness, letting loose our personal dogs of war, pushing it to such extremes that the only choices are sinking to savagery or rising to some state of grace.

But the actions of the lead characters (Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson) are so contrived and implausibly excessive that "Changing Lanes" repeatedly sputters and stalls in traffic.

Michell ("Notting Hill") flirts with satire in the hurtful absurdities these men perpetrate, and "Changing Lanes" might have been a stronger, more provocative tale had the filmmakers aimed more for black comedy rather than melodrama.

Still, there’s substantial _ if none too subtle _ explorations of personal and corporate scruples, the consequences of the smallest of everyday actions, and how a random unkindness to a stranger might simmer long after the inflictor has forgotten it.

The film’s moral posturing at least gives audiences something to chaw on while awaiting the next outrageous act of malice.

Fading in on Manhattan, "Changing Lanes" quickly establishes the different worlds of its antiheroes. Gavin Banek (Affleck) is a fast-lane attorney who has everything and wouldn’t mind getting more. Doyle Gipson (Jackson) is a recovering alcoholic with a meager insurance-salesman income, trying to buy a home in Queens for his ex-wife and two sons so they won’t follow through on plans to move to Oregon.

Both start their day hurrying to court: Doyle to show his good-faith house-hunting effort to retain joint custody of the boys, Gavin to file papers validating his firm’s control of a $100 million charitable fund over objections of the founder’s heirs.

After a fender-bender, Gavin crassly strands Doyle, who misses his court date and loses his custody case. But Gavin mistakenly leaves Doyle in possession of a critical file, whose loss could expose the attorney and his firm to fraud charges.

The setup leaves the two with a full day’s docket of suffering, retaliation and soul searching. They toy with doing the right thing but continue having at each other, Doyle holding the file hostage and jeopardizing Gavin’s life by tampering with his car, Gavin sabotaging Doyle’s finances and derailing his tenuous connections to his family.

"Changing Lanes" stretches credibility by putting its principals so over the top so quickly. Granted, the slowly developing back story establishes them as high-strung men of rather unsavory nature; yet, rather than letting the feud develop organically, Michell and screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin steer the two men to the most drastic acts almost from the outset.

"Is there any other way?" Gavin asks a financial hacker hired to pressure Doyle into returning the file.

"Well, sure. Call him up and just be nice to him," is the unheeded answer.

In a satiric context, this much spiteful action could be reasonably packed into a single day. Taken as straight drama, it comes off as clumsy manipulation, an overly blunt metaphoric examination of the pent-up bile of urban life.

The film is helped by skillful performances. Jackson proves as effective at subdued seething as he has at explosive flamboyance, while the normally flat and stilted Affleck gives his most full-blooded performance since "Chasing Amy."

Sydney Pollack adds Machiavellian menace as Gavin’s take-no-prisoners boss and father-in-law, Kim Staunton ably delivers disheartenment as Doyle’s ex-wife, and there are solid walk-ons from William Hurt as Doyle’s Alcoholics Anonymous mentor and Amanda Peet as Gavin’s shamelessly expedient wife.

"Changing Lanes’’ runs 99 minutes and is rated R for language.

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