Friday, March 29, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Changing Lanes

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"Changing Lanes" came out in April of 2002, smack dab in between the self-important Oscar-bait films of the previous fall and the dumb and noisy action
flicks of the summer, and long enough ago to have slipped past. It received relatively favorable reviews, made a good box office showing, and then promptly disappeared. Its solid reputation could not save it from obscurity, and neither could its stars: Ben Affleck was about to enter a downward spiral as an actor (see "Paycheck" and the widely despised "Gigli") that he would only later pull out of as a director, and the always reliable Samuel L. Jackson performs in so many movies, both good and bad, that another appearance by him is hardly a major cultural event.

However, this film should not be forgotten. It tells an excellent story of a very unusual sort for Hollywood: one with real moral issues on its mind, issues which it can articulate well. It is also an engaging and effective thriller, boasting Affleck's best performance and possibly Jackson's as well.

The premise is as follows: A successful lawyer and a desperate dad become entangled in each other's lives after a fender-bender in hairy New York traffic. This one small event sparks a horrible day of thoughtless cruelties and reckless reprisals from both of them as the veneer of polite society falls away. Running late for an important case, ambitious lawyer Gavin (Affleck) hands the weary insurance salesman Doyle (Jackson) a blank check. Doyle protests; he wants to handle things the right way. But Gavin drives off, leaving Doyle, whose car is inoperable, stranded and unable to get to a custody hearing—in the same courthouse!—in time to prevent an unimpressed judge from granting custody of the man's two sons to Doyle's ex-wife. It only gets worse from there for these two mismatched enemies. And this all happens on Good Friday.

 See? It doesn't even sound that good. In fact, it sounds dangerously high-concept and ready to teeter over into contrived and schematic what-ifs or tacky literalism. I set about watching it the first time expecting a by-the-numbers revenge thriller that would probably throw in some pseudo-profound babbling about fate and chance and being not-so-different, you and I. But director Roger Michell, working off an excellent script from Michael Tolkin, Chap Taylor, and Anthony Picharillo, has crafted a much more compelling film, a moral thriller centered on two entirely believable characters who are neither heroes nor villains, but men stuck with having to make increasingly harsh moral choices that have likewise escalating impacts on their lives and those of the people around them.

Affleck often stumbles around over-earnestly in roles that don't do him any favors. (He was the weakest link in the ordinary but likeable "Sum of All Fears," even though he was first-billed.) He's not cut out for to be an action hero; he's not magnetic enough to skate by just on charisma as a leading man; and he's too bland to be a character actor. But here he is handed a complex role and fits himself to it ably. Gavin is slick and self-confident, a man with a buried conscience who is all too comfortable in the ethically dubious situations his job puts him in. As the bad Good Friday progresses, however, and he keeps crossing moral lines, Affleck does a masterful job of showing Gavin's growing unease with himself and incredulity at the mess he has gotten into. "Is there any other way?" he asks at one point. "Sure," says the man with his finger poised above a mouse-click that will wreak havoc on Doyle's finances. "Call him up and just be nice to him." But that would mean humbling himself, and by that point both characters are already acting out of spite and anger. Affleck sells both sides—the doubt and the arrogance.

Jackson on the other hand has long been one of my favorite actors. He elevates whatever he is in. He was revelatory in the stylish "Unbreakable" and his perfect delivery single-handedly saved the ending of that film from potentially groan-worthy dialogue. However, he is admittedly an actor who has a basic type he often returns to: the loud, angry, charismatic, menacing troublemaker who swears up a storm but has a core integrity beneath the rage and the bluster. He perfected this role as Jules in "Pulp Fiction." We see some of that fire here. There is a moment where he is telling a story and his eyes lock into a stare and his voice goes flat, and it is chill-inducing. But overall Doyle is almost the opposite of Jackson's typical role: he is a weary and cautious everyman, a man of integrity who strives to be a responsible father but is limited by his history of mistakes and battered by the grinding, mundane details of modern life until the quiet rage and desperation long coiling inside him is finally loosed in a cacophony of raw emotion. And when Jackson does show that rage, it is all the more potent and frightening for having been hidden so long beneath Doyle's meek and patient exterior. It is followed by trembling amazement at how far he has allowed himself to go, and a weary regret. Jackson's Doyle is one of the most memorable, believable characters I've encountered in film; while watching him I feel like I know exactly who he is, in the way usually only possible after having lived with a character for a long time in a novel or television series. Every time he comes up against a hard choice, I desperately want him to make the right decision, but every wrong decision he makes is perfectly motivated and perfectly understood.

Jackson's performance makes Doyle the more sympathetic of the two characters, but he is also a recovering alcoholic on the edge both of falling off the wagon and also, more importantly perhaps, of failing as a father. One of the film's strongest moments is when his AA sponsor (William Hurt) calls Doyle out on his flimsy excuses. Hurt is the first among equals in a uniformly excellent (and perfectly cast) cadre of supporting actors, including Amanda Peet, Kim Staunton, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, and a splendidly creepy yet ordinary Dylan Baker. Special mention should also be made of the fantastic Sydney Pollack, who as Gavin's boss plays a powerful, intelligent, and self-righteous man who justifies himself with the notion that, "At the end of the day, I think I do more good than harm." This is the central line of the screenplay for me, an exposure of a very commonplace type of moral code as in fact a compromise. It's this "I'm a good person" logic that the literate and tightly-constructed script deviously interrogates and undermines. At "the end of the day" (or life), is "more good than harm" good enough?

If I had to name a fault with "Changing Lanes," I could perhaps point out that it is occasionally too obvious with its parallels between the situations and actions of Doyle and Gavin (both have confrontations with their respective wives, who are wise to their patterns of behavior). Or I could complain that the ending seems a touch too upbeat, and risks undermining the moral horror story that came before. But these are nitpicks that I won't dwell on, because so much in this film—from the writing to the directing to the acting—is head-and-shoulders above 99 percent of what crops up in this genre, and in Hollywood in general.

"Changing Lanes" is a thoughtful and intelligent picture, full of fleshed-out characters and bravura speeches that cut to the quick, a criminally underrated work that deserves to become a modern classic.

"Changing Lanes" (R) ***** (Available on Netflix Instant)

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