If a woman marries a Wall Street lawyer on the understanding that he cheats for a living in order to provide for her, mightn’t she almost expect him to cheat on her?
That’s one of many morally themed questions raised in Changing Lanes, Roger Michell’s ambitious morality play of a film, which stars Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson as two aggrieved New Yorkers sucked into a downward spiral of ruthlessness and malice following a traffic accident on a New York throughway.
Jackson is Doyle Gipson, a husband and father on his way to family court with a proposal to salvage what’s left of his disintegrating family life. Affleck plays Gavin Banek, a corporate lawyer on his way to court to settle a legal issue involving his own law firm. Neither man has time to lose when their cars collide on the FDR — but Banek’s Mercedes suffers only superficial damage, while Gipson’s Toyota is crippled.
Gipson, anxious for obvious reasons to keep his legal affairs regular, wants to proceed by the numbers; but Banek is eager to cut to the chase, and his unorthodox solution is to hand Gipson a signed blank check, urging him to fix his car, treat himself to dinner, whatever.
This quick-fix turns out to have disastrous consequences for Banek, who gets to court only to discover that he’s inadvertently left an all-important file folder in the possession of the other driver — whose identity he never bothered to get. And Gipson fares no better at his own hearing, arriving too late to stop the judge from ruling against him.
Later, the two men’s paths cross again. Banek wants his file back, but Gipson doesn’t want anything Banek has to offer, and isn’t particularly inclined to help him. That’s the setup for a story of escalating hostility and ruthlessness that raises a host of moral, legal, ethical, social, and even religious questions.
For example, when push comes to shove, is there anything people won’t do to protect their own interests? When what we like to think of as common decency gives way to grim self-interest, is there any logical place for it to stop? When does self-interest become self-destructive? Can self-destructive behavior, pursued to the end, lead in the end to self-understanding and a chance at redemption?
I appreciate a mainstream film asking questions like this. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help being distracted by a host of more mundane but inescapable questions about what I was watching. (Note: Some spoilers ahead.)
Perhaps not. Perhaps in the stress of the moment, it might not occur to someone to say the obvious thing. But consider the next point:
Consider the scene in which Banek happens to spot Gipson on the street, and tries to talk to him to get the file back. Gipson’s response to start shouting about his lost twenty minutes and his resultant legal defeat. Isn’t that a gold-plated invitation to Banek to offer his services? Something like, "You give me the file, I help you get your family back"?
True, Banek practices corporate law, not family law, but even so (a) he’s still potentially capable of helping Gipson with whatever his problem is; (b) he’s got connections and could arrange other legal counsel; and (c) even if he thought he might not be able to help Gipson, wouldn’t a guy like Banek say anything and everything he possibly could in order to get the file back?
The fact that the story requires Banek not even to think of this obvious offer at this critical juncture is a basic flaw in the story’s structure.
Do you think you’d be quite sure, under the circumstances, whether it was "Doyle Gipson" or "Doyle Gibson" or even "Doyle, Gibson" (i.e., Gibson Doyle)? Do you even remember which name came first? ("Doyle" and "Gibson" are both quite common last names as well as viable first names; there must be hundreds of both in and around New York.) Even now, if you were to shut your eyes this moment, are you sure you would know what the name was? (Say, what was Affleck’s character’s name?)
And so it goes. Neither Gipson nor Banek makes much of a poster child for the danger of civilized behavior devolving into savagery, since neither of them seems quite stable from the outset. Gipson’s a recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies who seems to cause trouble wherever he goes, while Banek’s a soulless shell of a human being too shallow to realize that he’s as unprincipled as everyone else around him, including his wife (Amanda Peet). That unstable human beings can do unpredictable and terrible things isn’t exactly a dramatic revelation; yet even so the film relies so much on contrivance and arbitrary behavior that the events and their consequences seem to have little to do with the human nature of the characters involved.
The two protagonists are indeed so unsympathetic that (further spoilers ahead) the film’s attempts to redeem them in the last moments fall flat. During the course of Changing Lanes we watched Gipson’s wife Valerie (Kim Staunton) leave him and take the children, and we also saw vivid and compelling evidence that she was right to do so. The man sabotaged another man’s car, for heaven’s sake; he could have caused any number of deaths. Gipson and Valerie have not one but two farewell scenes, first a poignant, dignified scene in which she thanks him for letting them go, then a pathetic, desperate scene with Gipson in jail and Valerie not willing even to let him say goodbye to the children. "This is the kind of thing that always happens to you," she rages at him through the bars, "but never seems to happen to me, except when I’m within your gravitational field."
But then, in the end, Banek goes after Valerie, asking her for five minutes of her time. He must be some lawyer, because whatever he says gets her to return to New York with the boys to see Gipson (it’s unclear whether she has any intention of reuniting with Gipson or is only allowing him to see the boys).
While I can’t imagine that anything Banek of all people could possibly have to say to Valerie could change her mind about Gipson’s reliability as a father figure, I can say with certainty that nothing the movie showed me changed my mind.
The film tries to eke a sense of spiritual significance out of its events with religious trappings: The day is Good Friday, and crucifixes and images of Christ pop up all over, culminating in a scene in which Banek stumbles into a Catholic church just as the cross procession is going on, then wanders into a confessional just to sit down. When the priest engages him in conversation, Banek rants about the ugliness of the world and the absurdity of his own feud with Gipson, exclaiming at last, "Sometimes God just likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let ’er rip!"
No, God doesn’t do that. It’s screenwriters who do that.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.