Two cars collide on FDR Drive. Traffic is thick. It’s raining. It’s Good Friday (always too symbolic in movies). Both drivers are rushing to court dates in the city. One guy, Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson), is a recovering alcoholic (you’ve already seen him at an AA meeting). He’s hoping to convince his ex not move to Portland with their two sons, by presenting her with proof that he has secured financing for a house. The second guy, Gavin (Ben Affleck), is a standard-issue young movie lawyer, ambitious, ruthless, and about to seal a slimy deal by which his firm makes millions and he makes partner.
This car crash comes at the beginning of Changing Lanes. Caused by aggressive driving, it will prove fortuitous for both parties, as, by film’s end, they will learn important life lessons and be better men for their interaction. But at this early point, their encounter is all bad news. Gavin, selfish and distracted by his pressing business, offers Doyle a blank check to pay for damage to his now undrivable car. When Doyle rejects the offer, claiming he wants to do things “right,” Gavin panics and zooms away, yelling over his shoulder, “Better luck next time!”
This decidedly unsnappy retort becomes something of a theme in Changing Lanes. Both protagonists find themselves up against it — time — in their own ways. In his haste, Gavin leaves behind a file containing signatures crucial for his case. Knowing that his own time is running down, the forlorn and fuming Doyle picks it up and trudges into town where he’s 20 minutes late for his court appearance. The judge rules against him, his wife snubs him, his two sons are dismayed yet again that dad has screwed up royally. Meanwhile, Gavin, soggy but still speed-talking, discovers his error mid-sentence. His judge is more lenient with him (he’s a high-priced corporate attorney and, importantly, white); she gives him more time, till the end of the day, to recover the file.
This deadline sets the rest of the movie’s events in a kind of compressed motion. Conveniently, and in a city of millions, as soon as Gavin leaves the courthouse, he spots Doyle on the street. Gavin asks about the file, offers him a new car in exchange for his help, now that he’s desperate for it. That tears it for Doyle, drenched, miserable, and irate. “You think I want money?!” he roars, his voice coming close to that patented Sam Jackson climax-pitch. “What I want is my time back! Can you give my time back to me!?”
The rest of Roger (Notting Hill) Michell’s movie works almost like a post-Falling Down, in that it examines rage and racism and frustration, but in toned-down, slightly less aggressive ways than did the travails of D-FENS. Changing Lanes follows the divergent but inextricably entwined ways that Gavin and Doyle make use of their Good Friday, namely, finding ways to get revenge on one another. These battles speak to the films central question, which yields partly ironic answers, at least until the sentimental-mush finale: what are the specific negotiations to be made between masculinity and morality? Both Gavin and Doyle have fairly standard ideas about what it means to be a man: declare your turf, get even, shake your big stick. To an outsider, even one who loves you, this behavior can look awfully self-destructive. During one aphorism-riddled encounter, Doyle’s sponsor (William Hurt, sleepwalking) tells him that he’s addicted to chaos; and his ex-wife Valerie (Kim Staunton), observes sadly that she needs to “protect” their sons from his furious spirals out of control.
Partly written by Michael Tolkin (forever beloved for making the delirious masterpiece, The Rapture), from a story by newbie co-writer Chap Taylor, the film does lean heavily on its plotty mechanics. It is plainly less interested in particular characters (their trajectories are pretty corny, in the end) than the abstract concepts they embody, sometimes gracefully and sometimes grindingly.
The graceful parts mostly have to do with Jackson’s performance — somehow he makes even the most contrived plot turn look earnest. So, when Doyle’s initial rage at his own tragedy gives way to a decision to return the file (to do the right thing, because, at some level, he’s “bigger” than Gavin, or at least, he believes, he’s had to deal with greater hardships than his more privileged counterpart), the flip happens in an instant. He settles into his cubicle (he sells insurance policies over the phone), then casually calls home to listen to his messages. The smile leaves his face. He hears Gavin’s incensed voice, informing him that he’s already struck back, by contacting a sleazeball “fixer” (Dylan Baker), who has deleted Doyle’s credit history. Doyle’s face falls, barely; then he gathers himself to act.
When you see Gavin’s end of this exchange, however, the mechanics are much more overt. The fixer turns gleeful while punching at keys, pauses dramatically before hitting the one that will bankrupt Doyle, then whomp, it’s done. Gavin looks on, chewing his lip. While this is probably the fastest way to get Doyle’s attention (as he’s been advised by his coworker/mistress Michelle [Toni Collette]), it’s also probably not exactly the “right thing” to do (something that Michelle has also pointed out). Oh dear, oh dear.
Changing Lanes offers such choices — trumped up and piled up — as a kind of character-defining shorthand. They’re uninteresting precisely because they’re obvious. Should Gavin forge a document to enable the theft of millions from a foundation that builds playgrounds for poor children? Should he stay with his rich-bitch of a wife Cynthia (Amanda Peet, woefully underused), who encourages him to do the wrong thing? She explains this strictly as a money thing: she wants it, and she determines that she’ll put up with anything, from his affairs to his temporary crisis of conscience, to keep it. “We’re a team, Gav,” she insists, as his suddenly sensitized eyes well up with tears. “We’re partners.” Will he sell his soul or what?
Doyle’s choices, on the surface, are similar, his demon being booze. Will he drink that bourbon sitting on the bar in front of him? Should he really try to persuade Valerie to stay, even though he makes his sons cry, every time they see him during this long, long day? It’s hard to miss the difference in scale between their choices. While Gavin is coming to terms with the fact that his line of work is all about cheating people as a matter of course, Doyle sits in his cubicle, pondering his own immediate losses. While Gavin risks this hateful/insanely lucrative job, the wrath of his senior partner/father-in-law, Delano (Sidney Pollack, still reeking of his role in Eyes Wide Shut), his dreadful marriage, and perhaps, a stint in a country club prison. Doyle’s risks are both smaller and infinitely larger: he risks never seeing his kids again, real jail, descent into alcoholism, and a murder charge (this stemming from one the of the film’s lamest plot turns). He has less to lose, perhaps, but his potential gains will never even come close to what Gavin takes for granted each day.
All this pondering of moral questions starts to make Gavin’s head spin, and in between conniving ways to muck up Doyle’s life, he finds the time to duck into a church, where, after confessing that he’s not Catholic, he presses the priest (Jordan Gelber) for answers. “I came here for some meaning,” he says. “Why does the world need meaning?” asks the priest. This, it seems, is exactly the right question, and Gavin can’t imagine it. Likewise, he’s been unable to understand what Delano has put to him earlier, in a last-ditch effort to convince Gavin to swallow hard and go on with the deceptiveness of the firm’s basic work. While Gavin is still hung up on what’s going to happen to the playground money they’ve displaced into the firm’s coffers, Delano asks him where he thinks all those foundation millions came from? It’s not as if the money was ever “pure.” Doh.
At moments like these, Changing Lanes surpasses its easy ethics lessons, even suggesting that at some level, it understands its own contrivance and reductiveness. But these insights are most often overwhelmed by events that pass for morally “correct.” Gavin’s eventual role as savior is more disturbing than the selfish and ugly one he’s been playing at (and not so well) in the first part of the film. In order to bring meaning to his chaos, Gavin becomes, after all, a rather hamfisted white knight. He can bring such order because he has resources, and most importantly, time, that Doyle never will.