Changing Lanes (2002) — Ben Affleck proves that he can actually act

“Can you give me my time back? Huh? Can you?”

PoolMan’s rating: Oh, this is what it’s like when you let guys just act a little.

PoolMan’s review: I’ve become more and more aware of Ben Affleck over the last couple of years, and I’ve come to realize something about him. He’s probably going to surprise me for some time to come. Every time I think I have his talent level pegged, he goes and moves the peg. My first exposure to his acting was as the man with a penchant for sex in an uncomfortable place (all together now: “What, like the back of a Volkswagen?”). I would later be impressed with his work as a guy who falls for a lesbian but can’t dismiss her past.

But right here, in Changing Lanes, I think he’s hit his high water mark for the moment… time will tell if his turn as the new Jack Ryan does anything more for him. (and speaking of following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps, is it possible that he’s not only got the humour, but the depth to play the next Indiana Jones, as he has been rumoured to do?)

Changing Lanes is a very human-oriented film, a character study of two mostly good men, both tarnished, but both trying to do the right thing. On their way to the same New York courthouse, Affleck’s character (an up-and-coming power lawyer named Banek) accidentally runs Samuel L Jackson (an insurance salesman named Gipson) into a highway divider, and leaves him stranded on the overpass with a blank cheque and no insurance information. Unfortunately, the encounter leaves Gipson late for a divorce court hearing, which ends up costing him his two young sons, and Banek leaves behind the key document in a multimillion dollar lawsuit that could not only lose him the case, but land him in prison for fraud if he can’t recover it. As both men realize just what the morning’s encounter has cost them, their emotions begin to fly off the handle, and they alternately try and surrender to and attack one another over the course of a single Good Friday.

This is where the movie ultimately gets really interesting. Both the leads are interesting, largely likeable characters with spotty pasts. Banek has cheated on his wife with his secretary, and Gipson is a recovering alcoholic (with a very powerful bar scene that culminates in a speech that will have human rights activists cheering), but you never come to hate either man for his demons, because they seem to come to them whether they want them or not. In the same way that no one in real life is completely pure or completely evil, these characters display a lot of depth.

The movie plays heavily off of this, and gets really enjoyable when they both alternate between trying to do the right thing and visiting some great harm on the other in a constantly escalating seesaw of actions. As an example, just as Gipson finally decides to give Banek back his crucial document because it’s the right thing to do, Banek hires a computer hacker to wipe out Gipson’s finances to blackmail him into giving the document back. Later, Banek is overcome with guilt over having done this to a largely innocent man, but by the time he tries to undo the damage, Gipson has already found out and is working to get him back again. Lather, rinse, repeat. And yet, even as each character strikes back at the other, you get the overriding sense that he feels terrible about it, but can’t see any other way to go. It’s intriguing, and it made for an interesting viewing.

So why have I spouted so much about Ben Affleck at the top of the review? Well, I’ve got to hand the guy credit, he did a lot with his role. He flip flops back and forth in making Banek a likeable bastard, a good hearted man working for less honourable superiours, but far from flawless. Sam Jackson is a little more one-sided, but he’s also great, just a little more skewed to the darker side of things. I really enjoyed the way his character seemed so meek and small, until he gets riled up, and is suddenly large and dangerous. Both actors deserve a pat on the back. This movie could be a ham-fisted waste of time without strong performances.

The ending falls a little short of the setup, but it’s far from terrible. At the end of the day, things work out just a little too happily for comfort, which undermines quite a lot of the gritty character drama that precedes it. It’s a bit contrived, but it’s not enough of a detraction to ruin the movie. It merely feels like the best, if least likely, possible outcome. Changing Lanes is still a great movie that I’d recommend to anybody who enjoys a story in which there are no heroes and no villains, just players, and one gets a feeling not of cinema, but of stage.

Didja Notice?

  • The movie’s set to take place on Good Friday, but there are radio reports of the Stock Exchange’s performance. The Exchange would be closed.
  • When Banek sets off the fire alarm, the computer monitors don’t seem to be all that bothered by the falling water.

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