Saturday, May 2, 2020

Changing Lanes Is A Solidly-Crafted Courtroom Drama

The courtroom thriller is basically dead in the modern American landscape. However, for decades, it was a ubiquitous sight in multiplexes. At the dawn of the 21st-century, one studio making these movies with extreme frequency was Paramount Pictures. Nowadays they're more known for movies based on Sonic the Hedgehog and for developing numerous films based on Hasbro properties. For a moment there, though, Paramount really cornered the market on crime-based movies for adults as the 2000s began. One example of the studios' brief dominance in this genre was the April 2002 drama Changing Lanes.

Uniting Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson under the direction of filmmaker Roger Michell, Changing Lanes follows the separate lives of divorced dad Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) and young lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) randomly colliding on one seemingly normal day. That collision actually happens literally as Banek rams into Gipson's car. Both are on their way to important courtroom proceedings but only Gipson sticks around to do the proper post-accident procedures. Banek drives away, leaving a stranded Gipson with no vehicle to get to a hearing that will determine whether he'll get any custody of his kids.

However, once Banek gets to his own trial, he learns of something distressing. He's missing an important document. In the middle of all the chaos, Banek didn't have time to trade insurance but he did have time to lose a sheet that would secure him and his bosses (the most prominent of which is played by Sidney Pollack) an automatic victory in this case. Now Gipson has leverage on Banek and that'll kick off a cat-and-mouse game that promises to upend both men's lives forever. Through the screenwriting of Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, the story of Changing Lanes proves to be sufficiently entertaining. This isn't prime rib cinema but it's not McDonald's either.

Taylor and Tolkin keep the plot constantly moving and are also smart enough to anchor the film with two lead characters that each carry a distinct personality. No boring blank slates found here. Banek is a self-centered jackass with all kinds of power at his disposal while Gipson is more of an average guy struggling to keep his life together. There's immediate conflict stemming from their contrasting personalities in their first scene together that sets off a domino effect of vengeance that proceeds to unfurl throughout the rest of the runtime. It's also commendable that Taylor and Tolkin don't take the stakes of this story to ridiculous extremes. Tension gets generated by small-scale character-specific circumstances, like Gipson being tempted to relapse on his sobriety, rather than random explosions.

The biggest fault with the writing turns out to be that the plot bites off more than it can chew. By the end, the previously oblivious Banek is well-aware of the corruption his superiors are capable of. He's not just complicit in the mayhem caused by rich people running amuck. He's also become one of these monsters due to the way he's used his power to ruin Gipson's life. For a moment, it looks like Changing Lanes is about to engage in a bleak ending that could really dig deep into real-world issues related to power, race and wealth. Unfortunately, Changing Lanes is still a major studio release so things have to get wrapped up in a tidy happy fashion. Such a conclusion can't help but feel anti-climactic considering the weighty material Changing Lanes had been flirting with up to that point.

Still, an underwhelming finale can't undercut the good that Changing Lanes does do. Roger Michell's direction, save for an overuse of slow-motion during car crash scenes, is well-done. Christopher Tellefsen's editing nicely cuts between the separate lives of Banek & Gipson, particularly in the opening scene of Changing Lanes. Best of all, this movie allows Samuel L. Jackson to deliver an exceptional lead turn. Rightfully famous for his unforgettable sense of commanding authority, the role of Doyle Gipson allows Jackson to able to exude an impressively believable sense of vulnerability. He's a guy who is barely holding onto the various threads of his life and Jackson captures that exquisitely. Even scenes where Gipson becomes overwhelmed with frustration convey a tragic quality rather than a heroic quality. Any movie that serves as a reminder of Samuel L. Jackson's many gifts as an actor is alright in my book and Changing Lanes certainly accomplishes that!

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