April 18, 2002

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Samuel L. Jackson is one of the few actors today capable of carrying a film with nothing more than the weight of his personality, his pure charisma. But even Jackson’s overwhelming stage presence isn’t enough to hold up the mushy and tired script of Changing Lanes, a film that shows promise but ultimately collapses into a boring and sentimental parable.

Jackson plays Doyle Gibson, a recovering alcoholic, taking one painful step at a time towards sobriety and normalcy. The film takes place on a very important day for Doyle — he’s on his way to court to show his separated wife his reinvented life, hold on to his two sons, and offer them all a new house that he’s been struggling to purchase. On his way to court he’s hit, his car totaled, and he’s left on the side of the rode by lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), who’s in a desperate hurry to file the one existing copy of a legal document that stands to make the senior partners of his firm millions. Gavin leaves the documents at the scene of the accident, and his attempt to get them back from Doyle draws the pair into a test of wills, as they both begin chipping away at each other’s lives. Doyle only wants his time back, the twenty minutes he lost from the accident that make him miss his hearing and lose his kids.

The cat and mouse game that ensues is sometimes gripping, yet the film gropes for a level of tension it can’t quite grasp. Though Jackson is at his characteristic level of intensity — even as a bedraggled alcoholic his every word commands attention — Affleck is far too soft and squishy to be an effective counterpart to this struggle in an epic clash of will. This serves him in some ways: he plays the squirmy lawyer who strikes anonymously from the shadows with natural ease. But as an antagonist he just can’t keep up with Jackson.

The film keeps constant stock of its main characters, usually switching back and forth between them every few seconds, revealing many bizarre parallels between the two lives. Despite Affleck’s dead weight, this immediately draws the viewer in and manages to keep his interest alive for the first half of the movie. At least by the time the hopelessly unoriginal ending arrives, the viewer is so dazed by the film that he can’t feel insulted by the idiotic and moralistic conclusion — the sort of supposedly meaningful garbage the writers of Saved by the Bell crammed into every script.

Part of that conclusion involves Gavin’s realization that the firm’s senior partners are operating unethically, possibly illegally. He must be the world’s least perceptive lawyer to fail to realize the shady dealings he’s been a part of. This more than anything reduces Gavin to a shadow of a character. He’s only there so he can be a bad guy who becomes good.

Jackson and Affleck are backed by some rather strong performances, relegated to the background as they are by the main battle royale. Doyle’s estranged wife Valerie (Kim Staunton) — who last appeared next to Jackson in the 2000 remake of Shaft — delivers a soft and moving performance as a woman fed up with the bungled attempts of her alcoholic and rage-o-holic husband. Her calm and rational demeanor is a sharp counterpoint to Jackson, who is a constant furnace of repressed, and often not so repressed, rage. Perhaps if she had been pitted against Doyle instead of the cardboard cutout Affleck plays, the movie might have been more compelling.

Toni Collette also puts in a strong performance as Gavin’s do-gooder of an assistant Michelle. Her emotional connection with Gavin provides some of the little real understanding of who Gavin is, or was, and the dynamic between the two is much more interesting than that between Gavin and his social climber of a wife played by Amanda Peet.

Perhaps the decay of this film can be linked to the inexperience of its creative control. Director Roger Michelle had his first real hit in 1999 with the unremarkable Notting Hill. He doesn’t seem to have grown much since then.