On Screen

'Changing Lanes': A Riveting Chain Reaction

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 12, 2002

"CHANGING LANES" reeks of high-concept tackiness: two men (Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck) from different walks of life, bump cars on New York City's FDR Drive. Their ensuing altercation is just the beginning of a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that lasts for the rest of the movie.

Oh puhleez, you think. But lo, this movie is directed by Roger Michell, who also helmed "Persuasion," an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, and "Notting Hill," the Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts romantic comedy. Not exactly road-rage material. And although co-writer Michael Tolkin wrote "Deep Impact," he also created the relatively heady "The Player" and "The Rapture." Something's almost fishily promising about this project.

Indeed, "Changing Lanes" is far richer than you'd ever think possible. It doesn't completely free itself of Hollywood's conceptual shackles, but boy does it come close. Almost all of the movie – except a Stilton-cheesy resolution – is engaging stuff. It's like good television.

I say "good television" because television dramas are more dependent on dialogue than movies, which are usually visual. "Changing Lanes" is full of talk – well-wrought talk. And good talk always means good characters. Even the supporting characters (including William Hurt as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and Toni Colette as Affleck's office-mate) get deeper than usual about the moral issues.

Screenwriters Tolkin and debut-writer Chap Taylor make this protracted clash of two very obstinate wills really matter. Why is that? For one thing, we get to know Doyle Gipson (Jackson) and Gavin Banek (Affleck) before the accident. They're normal, vulnerable beings with foibles and strengths.

Doyle's a recovering alcoholic who's about to make his case in a custody battle. He loves his two sons, but his ex-wife (a stunning Kim Staunton – and incidentally, locally born) has other ideas about his ability to be a responsible parent.

Gavin's a lawyer on his way to fight for a dying man's wishes in a will contestation. It's not just any will. The deceased was the head of a huge, charitable foundation.

By the time they meet, in that unfortunate smash-up on FDR, we're rooting for both of them.

Lawyer Gavin tries (as usual) to fast-forward his way out of trouble by offering to blank-check all Doyle's damages. But Doyle is obsessed with doing things the right way. He wants to settle this through the normal channels.

Gavin has no choice but to split with the matter still undecided. He's leaving the scene of an accident. But this will be no clean getaway. He's left something behind, a terribly important document. Doyle keeps that document.

Neither one has time for this.

"Changing Lanes" is an entertaining exercise in audience manipulation, and I mean that in the best way.

One bad development begets another. But every time Doyle or Gavin tries to make things right, things conspire to thwart the gesture. Which gets them madder. So they do something bad again, in desperate response. Underscoring this downward spiral is the coulda been: Both men are so close to getting things right in their lives, if only they'd stop trying to one-up (or maybe one-down) each other. And it's this combination of moral potential and never-a-dull-moment action that makes "Changing Lanes" a little more than just pulp friction.

CHANGING LANES (R, 99 minutes) Contains obscene language, some violence and overall intensity. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company