“At the end of the day, I am satisfied with my work because I do more good than harm,” says a character in Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes.
You have to hand it to Paramount Pictures for its marketing campaign. The studio created a trailer that seems to trap interesting characters under another road-rage plot, emblazoned with the menacing tagline “Every wrong turn deserves another.” This way, your typical no-brain movie fan would be lining up early at the multiplexes, while critics wouldn’t be expecting much more than another formula action-thriller.
They certainly wouldn’t be expecting one of the most intriguing dramas to come out of a studio in quite some time: A film that creates characters free from any sort of plot devices, one that challenges viewers and creates hard questions along the way, some without a correct answer.
Lanes tells the story of two men who have an important meeting in court on the morning of Good Friday. This is the only similarity these men share. One is Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), an ambitious and wealthy young attorney rushing to court to present a file that would give his law firm control of an elderly millionare’s worth.
The other man, Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), is an insurance salesman and recovering alcoholic, who rushes to court to present evidence that he has been approved for a loan that would buy a house for his ex-wife and kids in New York, so they won’t have to move to Oregon.
Jackson’s Toyota hits Affleck’s Mercedes in the middle of New York morning traffic. The two men get out of their cars, upset after what just occurred, but are polite and respectful to each other because they are good people. Jackson wants to handle the crash the right way, Affleck has no time to swap insurance cards and file reports. Affleck gives Jackson a blank check and shouts, “Better luck next time” while driving away.
The two men eventually arrive to their respective courtrooms. For Jackson, his tardiness means everything; the judge has already awarded full custody of the kids to his ex-wife, and doesn’t want to hear Jackson’s excuses. Affleck’s lack of punctuality isn’t a big deal– except that he dropped the crucial file during the accident, a file that is now in Jackson’s hands.
At this point, you’ll think you’ve seen this movie before and know Affleck will ask Jackson back for the file, and then when Jackson refuses, will make life a living hell for the struggling father. Lanes, however, is not that kind of movie, although there are moments of suspense and threats of violence. Some, you have seen in the previews, like Affleck hiring a fixer (Dylan Baker) to turn off Jackson’s credit. Others you haven’t, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the movie for you.
Instead of the usual people-in-distress formula, Lanes is filled with scenes that belong in the Thespian Hall of Fame, such as the scene where Affleck lies to his partner and father-in-law (Sydney Pollack) about what happens to the file and then has to tell the truth. Or the scene where Jackson struggles to tell the judge why he was late, and a close up of his face reveals true pain and anguish. Or the scene where Jackson’s AA sponsor (the sadly underused William Hurt) gives a speech about how Jackson has hit rock bottom. Or the scene where Affleck’s wife (Amanda Peet) tells her husband, “I could have married an honest man,” but didn’t, because “you don’t work on Wall Street that way.”
Lanes is one of those films that tells a story of people who are basically good, but are forced to do terrible things by spur of the moment emotions. The film’s most notable achievement is forcing the viewer to get involved in the movie, rather than watch and say, “These people are stupid and this is something I would never do.” The characters make mistakes they cannot correct with a simple apology. At the end of the day, we are satisfied with what goes on, but we want to spend more time with Doyle Gipson and Gavin Banek,
and get to know them better. Few movies are able to do all this, but Lanes is one of the exceptions. This is easily the best film of the year so far.