Director Roger Michell's prior films indicate a talent for staging comedies ("Notting Hill") and period pieces ("Persuasion"). The director was originally going to helm "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" when he suffered a heart attack. After a recovery process, he became attached to "Changing Lanes", a film different from anything the director has done before. The film is an old-fashioned thriller; lively, intense and thought-provoking.
The film's set-up is not terribly complex, but the movie does a fine job branching out. Ben Affleck stars as Gavin Banek, an star lawyer who is heading to the courthouse as the movie opens, set to deliever a batch of papers that will settle an arguement between his firm and a charity over control of finances. At the same time, Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson, in an often amazing performance) is heading to court to a divorce hearing, trying to prove to his ex-wife that he has been approved for a loan that will be used for a house for his family. If he doesn't succeed, his wife and children will move to Oregon.
Both are on the freeway and are involved in an accident. Both men are rushing, but it's only Doyle who wants to do the right thing and exchange information before they go on their separate ways. Gavin, on the other hand, decides simply to give Doyle a blank check and run, with his only response being "better luck next time" as he drives away, with Gipson standing on the highway with a flat tire.
Neither succeed in court: Gipson arrives late for his hearing, which has already ended. Banek, on the other hand, has left the most important paper at the scene of the accident, which Gipson picked up. Banek finds out that not only will the lost paper possibly cost the firm millions, he might also go to jail. He turns to his ex-mistress (Toni Collette) for help; she turns him to a fix-it (Dylan Baker) who manages to turn off Gipson's credit.
Gipson fights back and sends Banek a page of the document with a simple "better luck next time" written across it. The film then throws the two into a chess match that opens out into the streets of New York City - just when it seems that one side or the other will put the chaos to an end, the other takes things a step further and more intense in their desire for revenge.
The script, by Michael Tolkin and Chap Taylor, is intelligent and explores the characters in great detail. Unfortunately, there are also a couple of instances where I didn't believe the film's events - (slight spoiler) one moment, for example, has Affleck's lawyer calling and leaving a message telling Doyle what he's done. While not a major point, I didn't think a lawyer would leave a message like this and, while this is sort of the jump-off point for another scene, I think it could have been handled better.
The film is not action sequence after action sequence, but I imagine it could have been in this day and age. Thankfully, director Michell has chosen cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who employs several different styles to bring the audience closer into conversations; there are a few great scenes of handheld camera use. The story's pace could have been slower, but the performances bring the intensity and the camerawork and expert editing add the urgency.
The performances are uniformly excellent. I expect no less than an excellent performance from Samuel L. Jackson and he provides one here, giving the character depth and offering his usual remarkable range from great subtle moments to intimdating rage. I've been noticing Affleck's performances get better and better and I must say, this is his best work yet as a character coming to the realization of how his world really works. The supporting cast is equally impressive; Sydney Pollack is fierce as Gavin's friendly-on-the-outside boss, Amanda Peet is sharp and commanding in her few scenes as Gavin's wife, William Hurt is excellent as Doyle's AA sponsor, Collette is smart and makes a solid impression in her few scenes, while Baker is entertaining.
"Changing Lanes" isn't flawless, but it's awfully close. Aside from a few little concerns about a moment or two in the plot, this is an intelligent and often powerful thriller that contains marvelous performances. One of the best films so far this year.