Ben Affleck hopes to continue his winning streak with audiences and critics this week with the release of the bloated and busy thriller The Accountant, in which he stars as an autistic man with Jason Bourne-like tendencies.
Despite the film’s intriguing trailer, The Accountant is a dog and will hopefully be quickly forgotten as nothing more than a deeply flawed vehicle for its star. If there is one Affleck vehicle which should be remembered, yet sadly isn’t, its the 2002 drama Changing Lanes, which showcased the actor with a highly intriguing script which afforded him the chance to do some of truly outstanding work.
Changing Lanes sets its sights on two men. The first is high-powered attorney Gavin Banek (Affleck), the youngest partner at a law firm run by his father-in-law (Sidney Pollack), who has the world in the palm of his hand. The second is a recovering alcoholic named Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) who has managed to turn his life around and is close to buying a small, modest house in an effort to win back his estranged family. Immediately after a simple accident on the expressway causes the two men to meet, Gavin (late for a court appearance where he is set to deliver a very important file) brushes Doyle off, leaving him stranded with a blank check, causing the latter to miss a crucial appearance in family court. When he notices Gavin’s file on the ground, however, he decides to teach Gavin a lesson – a lesson which changes the course of both men’s lives forever.
Changing Lanes can squarely be considered a morality thriller featuring two well-rounded and developed characters. In the first, Gavin, there is someone who has made all the right moves and has achieved so much at such an early age. Gavin’s price for existing in the world he does has no doubt been his character, which includes compromising his moral code and turning his back to humanity in general. It’s easy to instantly dislike Gavin upon first meeting him, especially given the level of audacity he has in believing that his task is more important than Doyle or the rest of the world, which he has seemed to forget even exists. It’s more than a little satisfying to see him brought back down to earth and made to change in an effort of saving what’s left of his soul. Beyond this, Gavin is forced to take another look at the world he’s adopted as his own because he realizes how quickly it can be broken apart and taken away.
A character such as Doyle is nothing short of heartbreaking and instantly relatable. It’s hard to watch someone fed up with trying to do the right thing who feels he’s got no other choice but to resort to turning into the kind of person he swore he never would be again. At the same time, its hard not to cheer Doyle on to some degree as he becomes unexpectedly empowered and enlivened as a result of what has happened to him. By him holding Gavin’s file, and essentially future, hostage, Doyle has found both a strength and a voice, along with a courage that had been suppressed for some time, but has now found its way to the surface. Unfortunately, Doyle’s actions lead him into a territory he didn’t expect, thus forcing him to be brought back down to earth as well.
Both men have no reason whatsoever to meet. Yet when they do, they change each other in ways they never expected they could, causing them to look at the men they have become. There’s also a great amount of relatability among both Doyle and Gavin where the audience is concerned. The two men are written with such distinct and realistic flaws which are easy for most people to identify with. “I’ll buy you a new car,” states a desperate Gavin. “You think this is about money,” replies Doyle. “What I want is my time back!” It’s in moments like that where Changing Lanes shows its true essence as a film about the principles of everyday life which transcend money and anything materialistic.
The strength of Changing Lanes is greatly bolstered by some top work from the likes of Pollack, reminding everyone that he’s just as good an actor as he is director, Amanda Peet as Gavin’s wife, who brings a soulful wisdom to her two brief scenes, and William Hurt who, as Doyle’s sponsor, nearly manages to outact Jackson off the screen.
Yet the show belongs to the two leads, who enjoy some of the greatest roles of their careers. For Affleck, Changing Lanes was proof that the actor could lead a film based almost purely on character and motivation, rather than stunts and hype. On Jackson’s part, the film represents one of the best leading roles he ever had prior to his becoming an actor known for leading overblown popcorn fodder. Both actors perform so well in their roles, bring their vastly different acting styles to the two parts. Whether in a scene with other actors, or one of the rare moments that the two are onscreen together, Jackson and Affleck give Changing Lanes the power and drive it needs to work.
For many audiences, Changing Lanes is one of those films which fell victim to mismarketing. The film’s trailer was sold as an outright adrenaline-filled thriller rather than the thoughtful ethics-filled tale it was. As a result, box office returns weren’t as high as they could have been for the film. Critics didn’t seem to mind, however, as most praised the screenplay for its thoughtfulness of the plot and its rich characterization.
The tragedy of Changing Lanes is that it remains the kind of film that couldn’t be made on the same level about the very same subject in the present day. Even in 2002 the film’s trailer had to resort to clever cutting in order to sell the film as an action picture just to get people to see it. Today, a film dealing with the morality, ethics, and the grey areas of humanity which exist within everyone would surely be relegated to the smallest of budgets and releases. However, Changing Lanes still stands as a reminder of a time when a major studio WAS interested in telling such a story and used two top movie stars and their undeniable talents to do it in such a smart and effective way.