Changing Lanes
directed by Roger Michell
(Paramount, 2002)

Heading for a child-custody hearing, Doyle Gipson gets sidetracked by a fender-bender on New York's FDR Drive. Wielding the opposing steering wheel is attorney Gavin Banek, a Wall Street powerhouse who's late for a courthouse appearance.

Damage is minor, so Gavin follows his usual routine: he hands Doyle a blank check, telling him to fill it out for whatever he wants. But Doyle's trying to turn his life around, trying to do things right, and he insists on the official exchange of insurance information.

Forget it, Gavin says. He drives off in a rush, leaving Doyle -- and the documents Gavin desperately needs for his court appearance -- in the pouring rain. Those missing documents shake the multimillion-dollar case Gavin (Ben Affleck) is trying to win for his firm. That 20-minute delay at the accident scene means Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson) misses his custody hearing and loses his children.

One snub escalates into one taunt, which is the start of the slide to the bottom for Doyle and Gavin in Roger Michell's Changing Lanes.

It's a surprisingly taut thriller, with Affleck and Jackson as men on the opposite ends of the economic spectrum with more in common than either would admit.

Doyle's desperation is born of long years of wrong choices and misspent anger. He's an Alcoholics Anonymous regular but, as a friend informs him, alcohol is not Doyle's real addiction: anger and chaos are.

Gavin's part of a powerhouse law firm that's tied to a shady deal -- a deal that will force him to cut some pretty sharp corners around the law. He's done all his rule-breaking in the shadows, fooling with the letters of the law until they spell out something that would never survive the light of day.

Gavin tries to track down Doyle and the missing papers, a task that doesn't take long to cross the line between mild panic to rage. When Doyle refuses to bring back the papers -- Gavin's delays cost him his kids, Doyle figures -- Gavin retaliates by paying "a guy who fixes things" to ruin Doyle's credit.

Faced with empty bank accounts and the loss of his house, Doyle pays a little visit to Gavin's car with a tire iron, loosening the lug nuts.

But beyond this back-and-forth road rage gone even worse are some observations about what people will do when backed into a corner, and about how close all of us can be to losing it.

Affleck's turn as Gavin is some of his best stuff. He works for his father-in-law, so he's trapped there, and his wife, Cynthia (Amanda Peet), challenges him to live on the edge.

You knew what you were in for when you went to work on Wall Street, she tells him, so it's time to grow up. Gavin's not willing to risk it all because he has everything to lose.

And Jackson seems effortless as Doyle, whose frustration bubbles beneath the surface and whose past gives him little reason to hope others will treat him with respect or fair play. Doyle's willing to put it all on the line because he has nothing left to lose.

Take away the final five minutes of Changing Lanes, which tie the plot with a sentimental bow, and it's a tense look at how far people will go when they can't find their way to backing down.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 2 August 2003

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