Uneasy Street

'Changing Lanes' signals grand intentions as a thriller but veers out of control

April 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

How do you make a melodrama about two men who don't know who they are? Get other characters to shout out who they are or should be every seven minutes or so. That's what the makers of Changing Lanes have done, and according to advance reviews, they might just get away with it.

Changing Lanes tries to develop a moral fable from a grudge match.

Even before these strangers collide on New York's FDR Drive, they're running on empty. Lawyer Ben Affleck is racing to appear at a dicey multimillion-dollar probate case. Recovering-alcoholic Samuel L. Jackson hopes the court will accept his plan to buy a house for his ex-wife and kids, on his phone-marketer's salary, so she won't move the family to Oregon.

Instead of his insurance card, Affleck wants to hand Jackson a blank check for his disabled car. But Jackson needs to go by the book and spurns the offer. When Affleck motors off without giving him a ride (or ID), Jackson loses the chance to plead for his family. Affleck loses a crucial document -- then realizes Jackson has the file. So the games, and the preaching, begin.

While nearly destroying each other, Affleck owns up to his complicity in the shady dealings of a shark-infested law firm, and Jackson recognizes that his own volatility defeats him.

Affleck gets counsel from his ex-mistress and colleague Toni Collette (mostly good), his boss and father-in-law Sydney Pollack, and his wife Amanda Peet (both mostly bad); Jackson gets berated by his ex-wife Kim Staunton and his AA sponsor William Hurt.

Changing Lanes is a fascinating Rorschach test, thanks to shrewd construction, a few genuinely funny, bitter scenes and a lucky connection to the fear and loathing beneath America's flag-waving post-9/11 Zeitgeist. But it's as pleasurable as getting stuck in traffic with only self-help tapes for the cassette deck.

Some have hailed it as the return of the Hollywood "message movie." The message is one step up from a bromide: We've progressed from understanding that bad things happen to good people to understanding that good people do bad things. Affleck's ethical crisis enables him to master his world and turn its workings to his advantage. That's what passes these days for "moral ambiguity."

Structurally, the movie is a cross between a seesaw and a striptease.

Each man goes to the brink of acting civilly before he finds out the other has pulled off some sort of savage trick, such as hiring a hacker (Dylan Baker) to sabotage Jackson's credit rating. Despite its high-mindedness, whether the movie plays depends on the audience's willingness to give into the adrenaline rush of every downward swing of the teeter-totter. The audience yells ever louder the closer Jackson comes to getting Affleck killed.

The movie also stages a psychological striptease. We learn these guys were cruising for a bruising -- Jackson because he's "addicted to chaos" and Affleck because his conscience is catching up with him. The moments of truth are dramatic bumps and grinds.

Tonally, the picture is a satire waiting to happen. All British director Roger Michell achieves is a more polished and hepped-up version of edgy urban TV-drama style. His jittery realism and relentless cross-cutting momentarily cause you to disregard some wild improbabilities: for example, that a schoolworker who knows Jackson to be a loving parent would turn on him as soon as Affleck declares he's poison.

When the action stops for arias like Peet calmly and deliberately explaining to Affleck that she married him because she thought he could be corrupted, the actors are hung out to dry. (These scenes would work only as parody. Why do my antennae tell me they will be acclaimed?)

Jackson's ex-wife and sons are reduced to tearful emblems of man's inhumanity to man -- or at least of Affleck's to Jackson -- and then to smiley-faced bearers of restored order and humanity.

A few moments boast the distinctive deadpan of co-writer Michael (The Player) Tolkin. I love it when Affleck admits to a priest that he sat down in the confessional because the pews were crowded.

Tolkin is adept at capturing the barbed politesse of the professional class, as well as the doomed idealism of the law students who figure in the film's best running joke.

If Tolkin had directed this himself and pulled it off as well as he did his L.A. satire The New Age (1994), he might have brought out more of the humor of people too busy to become, well, people.

He might have given Jackson more notes to play than earnest rage and earnest regret and Affleck some counterpoint to his blend of slickness and callowness. Then the film might have tingled.

Instead, the movie is a jumble of a male jeopardy thriller, a soap opera, an art film about alienation and the latest entry in the 24-hour New York nightmare sub-genre, similar to that George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic comedy One Fine Day (1996). For all its pretensions, Changing Lanes, ultimately, is about nothing more profound than one foul day.

Changing Lanes

Starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by Roger Michell

Rated R (language)

Released by Paramount

Running time 98 minutes

SUN SCORE * * 1/2

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