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Changing Lanes / High Crimes

"At the end of the day, I do more good than harm. What other standard have I got?" That is the question that confronts Doyle Gibson and Gavin Banek in the new film Changing Lanes. Though the preview makes it seem like a generic studio pic, it's actually a thought-provoking drama that explores the ethical choices at the foundation of our social relationships.

As you've probably seen in the ubiquitous commercials, Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson) and Banek (Ben Affleck) are two men whose cars crash one day on a New York city highway. Banek's vehicle can still drive and, though both men are on their way to court, he hurries off after writing Gibson a blank check for the damages and yelling "Better luck next time." Gibson is left standing in the rain. He arrives at his child custody hearing dripping wet and late. Even though he's arranged for his estranged wife to buy a house nearby, the judge has already awarded Gibson's wife custody of their two boys. Though Banek is on time, his court case doesn't go any better; he's left a crucial file at the accident scene, a file that Gibson picks up.

What follows is a series of choices and decisions, as Banek tries to get his file back and Gibson tries to get his life together. Both men are inclined to help the other (Gibson has even hired a messenger to send the
file back), but misunderstandings and a few cross words send their relationship in the other direction. Banek hires a "fixer" to destroy Gibson's credit in a misguided blackmail scheme, and Gibson goes so far as
to ponder killing this man he doesn't even know. The film's script, written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (The Player), charts this development as if it's a natural evolution, though not an inevitable one.

Helping enormously is Roger Michell's (Notting Hill) crisp direction. He cuts effortlessly between Jackson and Affleck, establishing their similarities and differences and showing how their lives are ever more intertwined. The opening scene is a model example of this at work. We see Gibson at an AA meeting, where he's with his sponsor (played by the underused William Hurt), and we see Banek at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he's helping honor a benefactor. The two milieus are obviously different but yet strangely alike with their orchestrated social interactions. Christopher Tellefson's sharp editing contributes enormously, creating a powerful pace without ever being showy.

The acting in Changing Lanes is fantastic across the board. It's certainly one of Jackson's best performances since Pulp Fiction, as his downtrodden father struggling with his demons is extraordinary. Surprisingly, Affleck
matches him step for step. While the hot-shot lawyer with a crisis of conscience isn't as difficult a role, Affleck is believable and compelling. His second scene with Jackson--in which he apologies *so* that he can get
the file back--is exactly right.

The supporting cast is also great. Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) only has a few scenes, but his hard-nosed lawyer and father-in-law to Banek strikes the perfect tone. Dylan Baker as the "fixer" who likes his job a little too
much is creepy and funny at the same time. Even Amanda Peet (Whole Nine Yards) is fine as Banek's wife, and her scene where she encourages him to engage in fraud is chilling. Only Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) as Banek's lover and secretary seems out of place.

But I have to go back to the impressive screenplay, which raises issues not usually addressed directly in a big-budget Hollywood picture. It's no accident that all of the movie's events happen on Good Friday, which brings us back to the quotation I started with. Is there another standard? Is it ok to do bad things if they're outweighed by the good? And what is my responsibility to my fellow man, even someone I've never met before? The film's script isn't perfect (the emphasis on having all of the events occur in a single day sometimes create absurdities, and the movie's conclusion is a little too neat), but I was willing to overlook those faults in order to
focus on these compelling issues. Which are raised in a very compelling film.   

For an example of a studio film that doesn't succeed as well, we have to look no further than High Crimes, another movie pairing Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. This one has interesting similarities to Changing Lanes. Both portray high-powered lawyers, a black man battling alcoholism, powerful white men in some sort of conspiracy, and Amanda Peet in a supporting role. Otherwise, they couldn't be much different.

High Crimes is a pretty standard, connect-the-dots legal conspiracy thriller. Claire and Tom Kubik (Judd and Jim Caviezel, respectively) are a happily married couple trying to have a baby. He's an artist, she's a
high-powered defense lawyer. But one day, after an idyllic day of Christmas shopping, a entire squadron of FBI agents snatch Tom off the streets and whisk him to a military base. There he's accused of being Ron Chapman, a former Marine who slaughtered nine people in El Salvador in 1988. Claire is aghast, particularly when it turns out the Ron Chapman and former Marine parts are right, even if her husband denies the rest.

Claire is committed to defending her husband in court, however, particularly after she sees the bright-eyed kid who's been assigned to the case. But she needs someone versed in military law. Enter Charlie Grimes
(Freeman), a legal whiz whose previous indiscretions and battles with the bottle have left him lying on a couch. But that doesn't matter--he's available. Besides, Judd saw what a crack investigator Freeman was in Kiss
the Girls, so why can't he do it again in High Crimes? Or so it must have been asked in the film's pre-production meetings.

This movie feels like a paint-by-numbers operation. Take a standard conspiracy-thriller canvas, add the paint of two likable and bankable stars, add some red (herring) flourishes, and wrap it up with a twist ending. It's unfortunate, because Judd gives a solid performance and Freeman is great as always. And director Carl Franklin certainly has a pedigree with films like One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress. But the talent in front of and behind the camera can't overcome the boring, derivative script.  

J. Robert Parks 4/4/2002



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