Living in Southern California, I've had more than my fair share of road rage--the bumper to bumper traffic grates on your nerves, some idiot cuts you off, and pretty soon you're thinking about ruining a fellow driver's life. Rather than deal with the legal repercussions of stalking, Changing Lanes is a safe, vicarious way to live out the fantasy of screwing with a fool who chumped you on the road.
In this tale of getting even, short tempered Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) and unscrupulous attorney Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) cross paths in a random twist of fate. Their mutually bad day begins when they get into a car accident on the highway. In an urgent rush to get to an important hearing, Gavin hands Doyle a blank check to cover his repair bill, then leaves him stranded at the scene of the collision. But in his haste, Gavin misplaces a critical file that ends up in Doyle's possession. So begins the battle: as Doyle's anger gets the better of him and Gavin becomes blind with desperation to retrieve his file, the two stubborn men take turns in a vicious circle of revenge that gets completely out of hand.
A lot of folks have been clamoring the cliche praise, "This is Affleck's best performance to date!" People, what exactly are we comparing this to? His groundbreaking role in Forces of Nature? His emotional tour de force in Reindeer Games? The fact of the matter is that his performance in Changing Lanes is good, but not great. It's enough to sufficiently get the job done, but nothing above and beyond the call of duty. I still say that his strength as an actor lies in comedy, for which he is grossly underrated.
Of the leads, Jackson brings the more striking performance, if only because he is so ideal for the role of Doyle Gipson. Known for his characters who stick it to Whitey, he appropriately delivers more of the same in Changing Lanes. As a family man who is trying to reform his rage-filled ways, he is able to credibly switch between the personas of loving father and dangerous psychopath with ease. When he violently pulls Affleck out of his car, he has this crazy look of intensity on his face that conveys great emotion--he's ready to smack some crackas down, and it's go-time.
The tension between Gavin and Doyle is strong enough that the movie could have been accurately titled Changing Lanes: Banek vs. Gipson. The film's rampant game of cat and mouse is its highlight, and the participants' stories are well balanced enough so that each man seems both justified and despicable in his actions.
In contrast to the meticulous design that goes into Doyle and Gavin, the supporting characters are all one-dimensional figures meant to serve a single purpose rather than be individuals. Doyle's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (William Hurt) spouts off self-help dogma in order to blatantly psychoanalyze him, while Gavin's wife (Amanda Peet), father-in-law (Sydney Pollack), and co-workers are all outrageous sacks of crap meant to bluntly call his ethics into question.
Despite its strong start with a plausible situation gone disastrously wrong, Changing Lanes devolves into the corniest of melodramas by its final act. And there's nothing remotely subtle about it--characters openly reflect on their personal flaws and spew copious amounts of trite dialogue. Doyle's AA sponsor assaults him with Deep Thoughts like, "Booze isn't really your drug of choice anyway. You're addicted to chaos...You got hooked on disaster!" Gavin sits down and spells out his transgressions to anyone who will listen--his lawyer mistress (Toni Collette), naive job applicants, even a priest in a confessional booth (gee, never saw that one before). And with all his lamenting about the necessary evils of his profession, you'd think you were watching a bad episode of The Practice.
For all its accomplishments as an occasionally engrossing fable of vengeance, Changing Lanes is undermined by the way it lectures audiences with its lessons of right and wrong. Many viewers may find the approach insulting, while others may find it simply tiresome. Even worse is how the story ties up all its loose ends in a grossly artificial manner in a misguided attempt to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)