2002, Paramount. Directed by Roger Michell. Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Amanda Peet, Kim Staunton, William Hurt.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Depictions of amoral, reckless, sometimes criminal behavior; brief violence; a potentially lethal act of aggression; recurring vulgarity and minimal profanity; references to adulterous affairs.
Review by Steven D. Greydanus
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.)
- If your car had just been crippled in a car accident and you were begging the guy who hit you for a ride, but he was in a hurry himself, don’t you think you might bother to mention where it was you needed to go, just in case it happened to be on his way? You know, something like, "I need to be at court in twenty minutes"? After all, you never know, the other guy might say, "Court? Which courthouse?" (As it happens, both characters had the same destination.)
- If you were a lawyer, and if you wanted something from somebody who had legal problems, don’t you think it might it occur to you to offer to help that person with his legal problems in exchange for what you want?
- Say you’re in your car on a New York street, creeping along next to the sidewalk, trying to hold a conversation through your window with a man walking along in the rain. You give him your name, and he says, "Doyle Gipson." Will you be able to give that name, hours later, to a "guy who solves problems" so that he can pull up Gipson’s life via computer and proceed to wreck it?
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?)
- Suppose you do remember the name — and you do decide that felony computer fraud is the best way to deal with the situation. Think hard now: Do you, or do you not, call the guy and leave him a voice mail identifying yourself by name and explaining what you’ve done? Banek, who’s a lawyer, does — possibly the single dumbest thing in the film.
- When we first meet the guy who "solves problems," he’s on the phone negotiating a dispute, presumably involving his children, over how many cookies someone can have. See, he’s solving problems already. (That’s not a question, but I thought I’d note it anyway.)
- Say! Remember that blank check? If you were a guy like Gipson who’d just been bankrupted by an act of computer fraud, and you had a blank check from the rich guy who bankrupted you, don’t you think that check would at least figure into your efforts to figure out what your options were and what you might do next?
- How many New Yorkers drive, anyway? Banek might have a car, but Gipson? Not a chance.
- However, assuming Banek does have a car — a Mercedes — is it really going to come without a security system, and is he going to park it at work in an unattended parking garage, so that random people can just walk in and vandalize it — say, by removing all the lug-nuts from one of the tires?
- Assuming Gipson really is willing to put Banek’s life in danger, and that he does manage to abscond with the lug-nuts, and Banek is driving along unaware of his danger, is Gipson really going to tip his hand by pulling alongside in a taxicab and showing Banek the lug nuts and the lug wrench, while Banek is still in control of the vehicle and could potentially stop before anything happens?
- Assuming Banek doesn’t maintain control of the car, couldn’t a potentially fatal car crash be the end of Gipson’s chances of getting his financial problems fixed?
- What exactly was Gipson’s original grievance against Banek in the first place? Was it that he refused to exchange insurance information — or that he wouldn’t offer him a lift to his unstated destination? The former is a genuinely serious issue, but it was the latter that cost him his hearing. Had Banek done his duty by exchanging insurance info before taking off, that just would have made Gipson 25 minutes late instead of 20 — longer if they had waited to get a police report.
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.
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.