Sometime between Reindeer Games — when Ben Affleck’s early career began its initial nosedive — and when the Gigli/Surviving Christmas double-bill bottomed him out, Ben Affleck actually managed to make one decent movie. In fact, it was better than decent: It was legitimately good. And no, it wasn’t Paycheck, The Third Wheel, or even Sum of All Fears.
It was a movie called Changing Lanes, and — aside from a brief role in 2000’s Boiler Room — it was the best thing Affleck had done since Good Will Hunting.
Changing Lanes managed a solid critical reception, and even earned $66 million at the box office (a decent sum for an adult-targeted movie), but it’s not a movie anyone talks about anymore. I’m not sure why, if only because it also featured earlier-career roles from the likes of Toni Collette, Amanda Peete, and some nice turns from character actors Dylan Baker and Richard Jenkins, and one of the last substantive roles of Sydney Pollack’s career (aside from Michael Clayton) before he passed away.
But it was Affleck’s performance that really elevated a middling Chap Taylor script, because Affleck was playing the kind of role he was born to play: A smarmy, douchebag lawyer with a shit-eating grin and just enough of a conscience to keep us invested.
Affleck played hotshot attorney Gavin Banek opposite Sam Jackson’s Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic with a temper and a string of bad luck. The movie is set mostly during the course of one day that begins when Affleck gets in a fender bender with Gipson, who is on his way to a custody hearing where he planned to convince the court that he was getting back on his feet, had gotten over his drinking problem, and had even taken out a loan to buy a new house, where his boys could live under a shared custodial arrangement with his ex-wife.
Meanwhile, Banek was on his way to court to turn in a document procured from a dying man who wasn’t in his right mind when he signed it that would essentially screw a children’s charity out of $3 million. It would also, however, give Banek the respect he so desired from his unscrupulous father-in-law (Pollack).
The fender bender, however, would alter the course of both of their lives. Banek, in a hurry to get to court, basically threw a blank check at Gipson and ran, inadvertently leaving that important document behind. Gipson, meanwhile, was late to court, which cost him a shot at shared custody.
Throughout the course of the film, as Affleck attempted to retrieve the document from Gipson, and Gipson attempted to exact some revenge on Banek for fucking up his day, the two end up ruining each other’s lives in an exchange of increasingly debilitating tits for tats.
I’m not sure exactly what makes Changing Lanes so compelling, aside from Affleck’s smarmy performance and Jackson’s strong, poignant one. On the surface, Affleck’s playing with type, but underneath, there’s unexpected depth to his character. Meanwhile, Jackson is flat-out marvelous, a reminder before he had become an omnipresent yeller of “mother fucker,” Jackson had exceptional range.
Changing Lanes is a morality play disguised as thriller, and director Roger Michell gives it just enough flair to make it interesting but shows enough restraint to keep it thought provoking. There’s no good guys or bad guys in Changing Lanes, just broken men trying to keep their facades from shattering. It’s the kind of film we don’t often see in a superhero-dominated marketplace, but it’s one definitely worth seeking out.