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Changing Lanes (2002) starstarstar

Reviewed 2002-10-11
: The tagline reads, "One Wrong Turn Deserves Another," although it could just as easily read, "Haste Makes Waste." The distinguishing feature of Changing Lanes, a film about revenge, is that it's not just about revenge. And there isn't a wasted moment on screen.

So when two prideful men -- Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) -- collide in the JFK in New York, making both late for their respective court Second Lookappearances, it takes only thoughtlessness and selfishness to push them toward a cycle of revenge that almost spirals out of control. Gavin is a successful white partner in an ethically challenged law firm, the son-in-law of his boss, Stephen Delano (Sydney Pollack). Doyle is a telephone insurance salesman trying to keep his wife from leaving town with the kids by swearing off alcohol and buying a house for the family. When Gavin takes off, saying "Better luck next time," leaving Doyle stranded with a blank check in his hand, the money can't buy him back the time his misses what he arrives late in court to find the custody case resolved -- against him.

But the check wasn't all that Gavin left behind: Doyle now holds a crucial legal document that Gavin dropped on the street. And so the cycle begins. Director Roger Michell tells the story by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin in a way that makes the action spring from the inner demons of the characters. The characters are so believable because they are so much like us, conflicted, flawed, bad and good at the same time. They are forced into bad behavior through pride and suspicion. Gavin gets help from sometime lover Michelle (Toni Collette) and a sleazy computer hacker, Finch (Dylan Baker, who was just as sleazy in the 1994 film Disclosure)

Affleck continues to shine as one of our better-looking actors; Jackson is one of the most talented actors working in film today and, aside from what I thought was a gratuitous race-baiting fight in one scene, was an outstanding performer in this film, as well. Toni Colette, who I last saw in The Sixth Sense (1999), gives a sympathetic performance again in an American accent.

What I find particularly interesting in Changing Lanes, both because it is so unusual and because no critics I've read have felt compelled to point it out, is the Christian imagery and philosophy that runs through the film. There are churches, crucifixes, and confessions; the action supposedly takes place on Good Friday (which is doubtful, since the stock market is open!). And they're not just for show: they really make a difference for people. And although the resolution is a secular epiphany for the combatants, it is not inconsistent with a Christian moral tone. I point this out as an observation, not an evaluation: in the end, the characters are guided not so much by "What Would Jesus Do?" as by "Do the Right Thing." I give Changing Lanes high marks for that.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.