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'Changing Lanes'

Affleck doesn't keep up his end in 'Changing Lanes'

Friday, April 12, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Much (but not all) of what's wrong with "Changing Lanes" could have been improved if a better actor than Ben Affleck had been cast as the younger and wealthier of the film's primary adversaries.

 
 
'Changing Lanes'

RATING: R for language.

PLAYERS: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack.

DIRECTOR: Roger Michell.

WEB SITE: www.changinglanes.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

That character's nemesis in the movie is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, who has displayed his range and talent in everything from August Wilson's stage plays to Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Affleck, in contrast, has proven himself largely to be just another pretty face who specializes in playing smug operators like the flyboy heroes in "Pearl Harbor" and "Armageddon," the guy who courts the widow of the man who took his place on a doomed flight in "Bounce," the egotistical actor in "Shakespeare in Love."

Cast to type again in "Changing Lanes," Affleck portrays Gavin Banek, a hotshot young attorney who married the boss's daughter in the law firm of Arnell, Delano and Strauss. At the outset, he is rushing to court to file papers that will wrest control of a deceased client's foundation and its substantial financial endowment from the organization's current board, dominated by the client's family.

Jackson is cast as Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic who is buying a house in hopes of keeping his estranged wife from moving with their children to another state. With his hair cut short, wearing thick glasses and an overcoat and lumbering as he walks, Doyle bears similarities to the beleaguered teacher Jackson portrayed in "187" but is light years removed from the actor's Afro-wigged hipster hit man in "Pulp Fiction."

Doyle is rushing to a custody hearing when his car is sideswiped by Gavin's automobile on New York City's FDR Drive. It's just a fender-bender, but Doyle can't afford to cut corners. Gavin can't afford not to. Desperate to get to court on time, he makes a half-hearted attempt to settle matters and then takes off, telling Doyle, "Better luck next time."

With his ride disabled, Doyle gets to court too late. Gavin barely makes it, only to learn that he dropped the most important file in his case at the accident scene. Doyle's got it, and he's in no mood to do any favors for the man who may have cost him his last chance at keeping his family.

Desperately, Gavin overreacts in trying to get Doyle to turn over the file. Doyle counterattacks in his own way, and each man ups the ante to the point where it could become deadly.

Affleck and Jackson actually appear together in only a few scenes, and spend the rest of the time stewing over their predicaments and planning their next moves.

Our sympathy naturally lies with Doyle, a working stiff getting jerked around. We understand his plight and we are more likely to have been in his shoes than in Gavin's. The younger man caused the problem, and as the movie progresses we come to see just how ethically compromised he is. The fact that he had an affair with a colleague (Toni Collette) who becomes his sounding board and adviser is the least of it.

The characters do symbolically change lanes as the movie progresses. The screenplay by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin makes it clear that Doyle has issues beyond alcohol and cannot escape complicity in his plight, just as it allows Gavin to develop somewhat of a conscience, and not just about Doyle.

The difference is that Jackson lets us see it build in Doyle as his confidence collapses along with his hopes. He broods over the possibility of seeking solace in drink until he picks a fight with two guys in a bar. His wife harps at him until he proves she's right.

Gavin's conversion is less convincing. As his doubts grow both about his treatment of Doyle and his trust in the firm's senior partners (Sydney Pollack and Richard Jenkins), his actions remain rash and self-centered. Affleck lets him take too much joy in his own cleverness, like a frat boy pulling a prank. Even the way in which he resolves the drama seems pat and obvious, although that's as much the fault of Taylor and Tolkin.

A better actor would have been able to mine these fault lines in Gavin's soul. Affleck can't get that far beneath the surface. Director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") tries to help through his skill in making his characters look like they fit into their surroundings, the places they live and work.

Gavin's naivete is considerable, though useful to his father-in-law. It also allows Pollack to deliver the film's centerpiece sermon, in which he talks about trying to do good in his own way, bad as it may look. It's no more convincing than Affleck, but Pollack sells it for all he's worth -- this actor-director has a habit of quietly stealing your attention away from the main characters with his avuncular look and silver-tongued deviltry. Affleck should have taken notes.

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