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IN SHORT: A passable, though patently ridiculous, popcorn flick. [Rated R for language. 94 minutes]
Compressing years of film school writing classes into one or two sentences is our task today, in explanation of Changing Lanes, a drama that is as enjoyable as it is ridiculous. Our explanation would go something like this: Set up your characters and bring them into conflict as quickly as possible. Then, every ten minutes or so, throw 'em a curve and see how they react. Do this for ninety minutes and then end the thing and cash your check.
Three sentences. Close enough for rock 'n' roll.
That you know you are seeing something that isn't real when you sit in front of the big screen invokes a thing called "suspension of disbelief". If you believe what is laid out for you on the screen, the filmmakers have achieved the goal. If you know what you're seeing is not real, or simply and utterly ridiculous and you still enjoy it, that's called a popcorn movie and that's where Changing Lanes fits. We admit, though, that we're carrying all the knowledge that a person who lives in Manhattan would and we flushed this thing down our mental toilet about halfway through, when the by the book writing style of these first time writers became just too much to bear. We've sat through nothing but first timers for the last six weeks and we've had just about enough of it. Buy popcorn. Take nothing seriously and enjoy the ride.
Start with two New Yorkers heading for their day in court. Middle class insurance salesman Doyle Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson) has just bought his first house in a last, desperate attempt to keep his family together. He has anger problems. He's an alcoholic. He carries so much emotional baggage that a mere fender bender on the FDR drive pushes him to the edge. But Doyle maintains. Keeps it all in check. Wants to exchange insurance cards and info and "do it right". The rich white guy in the Mercedes, on the other hand, faces the loss of millions of dollars in business if he doesn't get to his court appointment in time. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a probate lawyer. Married to the bosses daughter (Sydney Pollack and Amanda Peet, respectively). Has no time to do the right thing and, when Gibson won't take a blank check, Bankek wishes him "better luck next time" and leaves the scene of the accident. He also leaves behind legal papers worth millions of dollars to his firm and to his career.
That incident sets in motion events which wreck both their days. Banek must get his papers back -- the man's an inveterate liar who covers up his screw up with everyone at the firm, excepting his ex-mistress, Michelle (Toni Collette). Gibson, who will lose everything he holds dear, really doesn't care much about those papers. As the minutes tick on, and as Banek miraculously runs into the rain-soaked Gibson on a downtown street, Gibson comes to understand the value of the papers in his pocket. Michelle, in the meantime, has tipped Gibson to a man who can destroy Gibson's life via computer, force him into submission and mandate the return of the papers. Yep, just the kind of thinking that an arrogant, rich white lawyer guy needs to make a success of himself in the world.
Banek is, at first, loathe to retaliate. After all what's an alcoholic guy to do? He calls his sponsor (William Hurt) for support. Gibson, who's rightfully doubted his actions all along, is called to attention by his wife (Amanda Peet). When you get to this point, you'll know why we rolled over and played dead. Screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin lay the conflicts on you with a bulldozer of a pen. Gibson's wife (Kim Staunton) and kids come and go. They reconcile and split while Banek runs the same women problems in reverse. And, of course, the computer whiz (Richard Jenkins) who is so good at destroying lives can't put Humpty Dumpty together again. If you don't bring built in sympathies to Affleck and Jackson based on knowledge and appreciation of their past work, you'll be wishing for a quick end to the proceedings. Even if you like these guys, Affleck doesn't have the chops to bring off his emotional conflict. Jackson's character is wound so tight we waited, in vain, for any kind of release. Anyone who carries that kind of anger must release it or direct it internally and we saw no reaction whatsoever.
And all the while two cars sit, wrecked, on one of New York's busiest highways and no one in a uniform seems to give a damn. We've lived in NYC too long to disbelieve this situation. You may not be able to find a cop when you need one in the Big Apple but if you mess up in traffic, a traffic officer will be on your butt in seconds -- and God help you if you leave the scene. In a computer driven world where one guy can screw up another guy's life in seconds via PC, are we to forget that a license plate trace can sic the dogs on you post haste?
That is why, when the action sequences have reached their limit -- and damn the lack of logic to any of it -- you must endure emotional trauma and screaming bosses to manipulate the story and keep everything moving. Just as it is taught in school. Go to see the stars. Bring a date. Buy popcorn Expect absolutely nothing and soak up the inevitable crash and burn.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Changing Lanes, he would have paid . . .
You can date. This senseless timekiller is best seen with your shoes off and your legs stretched out and up in the air. Of course, if your local theater is usually empty, you can have all the joys of home right there in the dark.
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