[Screen It]

(2002) (Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson) (R)

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Drama: A minor traffic accident and some misunderstandings and bad behavior change the lives of two men who get into a progressively escalating match of tit for tat.
Gavin Banek (BEN AFFLECK) and Doyle Gipson (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) are two men in a hurry to get somewhere when they're involved in a minor traffic accident. Gavin, a 29-year-old lawyer, needs to get to the courthouse for a probate hearing to deliver documents that will transfer control of a wealthy but deceased man's $107 million estate over to his law firm.

Unbeknownst to either man, Doyle, an insurance agent and recovering alcoholic, is also headed for the courthouse, but for different reasons. His estranged wife, Valerie (KIM STAUNTON), is planning to move their two young sons across the country to get away from him. Doyle needs to attend a custody hearing where he plans to announce that he's just been approved to buy his first house that he going to allow Valerie and the kids to use so that they won't move.

Unfortunately for him, the accident leaves his car out of commission, and Gavin, who gives him a blank check to pay for any inconvenience, refuses to give him a lift, telling him "better luck next time." When Gavin gets to the courthouse, however, he realizes that in his confused rush at the accident scene he accidentally left a folder containing one of the important documents needed for the transfer.

The judge gives him until the end of the day to file them with the court, and Gavin then lies to his bosses, Stephen Delano (SYDNEY POLLACK) and Walter Arnell (RICHARD JENKINS), the former who just so happens to be his father-in-law, that everything went fine. Confiding in his assistant, Michelle (TONI COLLETTE), Gavin tries to figure out what to do.

Meanwhile, Doyle is late for his hearing and thus loses custody of his kids and most any chance of Valerie staying in the city. When Gavin eventually tracks him down, Doyle says he threw the folder away and heads off to a nearby bar, much to the chagrin of his AA sponsor (WILLIAM HURT), but not before retrieving the papers after realizing how much Gavin wants them.

He's about ready to return them when Gavin leaves him a nasty message stating that he's ruined his financial status thanks to the work of a hired gun (DYLAN BAKER) who can do such things. From that point on, and as Gavin's greedy wife Cynthia Banek (AMANDA PEET) urges him to continue in the firm's corrupt ways so that they can maintain their lifestyle, the two men get into an escalating match of tit for tat that eventually reaches extreme and even dangerous levels.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
After a former boss of mine was in a bad car accident, he commented on repeatedly running the "what if" scenario through his head, as in "What if I had left home a minute sooner or later?" and "What if I had driven faster or slower through the intersection?" Although the old mantra is not to cry over spilled milk, it's hard for victims of such occurrences to shake such doubts and accept what happened as fate, misfortune or simple bad luck.

"What if" statements are asked in a different vein by filmmakers who try to capture the feel for their story in a one-sentence question. In "Changing Lanes," screenwriters Chap Taylor (making his writing debut) and Michael Tolkin ("Deep Impact," "The Player") and director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Titanic Town") pose the query of what if a minor accident screwed up two men's lives to the point that they become involved in a progressively escalating tit for tat battle where each tries to punish the other for their initial and then subsequent actions and attitudes.

The result is a compelling and generally well-made drama that comes in all shades of gray rather than the standard Hollywood black and white or right and wrong. There are no clear cut heroes, villains or victims here, nor are there any easy answers or explanations about what transpires. While that might prove to be uncomfortable and unpleasant for mainstream audiences accustomed to and/or needing the usual spoon-fed, cinematic pablum, viewers looking for some thought-provoking and nebulous characters and situations will probably appreciate what's offered here.

On the surface, the basic plot comes off as deceptively simple. Two disparate and desperate men get more than their bumpers tangled and then set out to screw the other out of necessity or just for spite, vindication or their own twisted pleasure as they try to attain their own goals.

Although that might sound like something of a black comedy combination of elements from films such as "The War of the Roses" and "Falling Down" - and the film borders on that genre at times and easily could have completely gone down that path - there's more at work here than just that.

As the two men go to more extreme measures in their battle, they discover and are surprised not only by the ugliness of their own actions, but also by the similar attitudes and behavior of those around them. While they occasionally want and/or try to do the right thing, the pervasive nastiness of their worlds and/or individual ids drag them back down into the muck.

While that might sound too ugly, unpleasant and mean-spirited to some viewers - and it is and will be - the way in which the story is fashioned and then told by the cast and crew makes it a mostly mesmerizing and engaging experience.

Beyond the decent temporal setup of one of the men needing to retrieve important legal documents before the end of the day from the other man who doesn't want to return them due to the first man's initial actions, the filmmakers nicely balance the two men's stories as they unfold in simultaneous fashion and equally keep the viewer intrigued.

For a film like this to work, however, the two leads need to credible in how they act and react to the circumstances and developments. Thankfully, Samuel L. Jackson ("The Caveman's Valentine," "Shaft") and Ben Affleck ("Pearl Harbor," "Bounce") are up to the task and challenges of the roles. Jackson, of course, is as good as ever and creates a completely believable and sympathetic character, warts and all, but I doubt that will surprise anyone.

Instead, the surprise comes from Affleck. I've been able to accept him in various parts he's played over his career, but he often comes off more like a celebrity actor rather than a serious thespian. Accordingly, I went into this film questioning whether he could pull off the character and meet the demands of this sort of role. While there are a smattering of shaky moments and he obviously won't be clearing any mantel space come awards season, Affleck holds his own and more than adequately plays the part.

Supporting performances are solid across the board, with Sydney Pollack ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Tootsie") and Amanda Peet ("High Crimes," "Saving Silverman") playing a father/daughter duo that shows that corruption doesn't fall far from the family tree. Both are blessed with some terrific moments and lines of dialogue - even if neither is remotely likable - and hit just the right notes in playing their parts.

The same holds true regarding Kim Staunton ("Dragonfly," "Holy Man") playing the distraught wife trying to move her kids away from their troubled father. Meanwhile, Toni Collette ("About a Boy," "The Sixth Sense") and William Hurt ("A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "Lost in Space") are also good in their roles and Dylan Baker ("Along Came a Spider," "Happiness") has fun in his brief role as a corrupt "information specialist."

All of the praise aside, the film does have a few problems. Various credibility issues and contrivances are scattered throughout the production. For instance, it seems unlikely that a lawyer would leave the scene of an accident (or be so careless with a file essentially worth $107 million), that setting off one sprinkler sets off all of them (they don't work that way on purpose to prevent what occurs in the film), that the two men would spot or run into each other so often in the big city, or that a person's tire would fall off the precise moment that someone pulls up next to them and gestures that they've done the dirty work to make sure that happens.

In addition, and notwithstanding the pre-set temporal device, the fact that everything transpires in one day is a bit hard to buy at times, while some of the overt symbolism - such as Affleck's character spotting Christ on the cross and presumably representing his suffering - gets a bit too thick.

Such problems/faults thankfully don't sink the production, although they do mar it perhaps a bit too much. Nevertheless, the engaging tale, solid performances and the thought-provoking questions presented in an unconventional cinematic package make this a film worth checking out. "Changing Lanes" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 8, 2002 / Posted April 12, 2002

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