' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Changing Lanes

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Great Movies: Changing Lanes

Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) has a good life. A young, hotshot lawyer who lives extravagantly with a beautiful wife and will be asked to become a partner of his law firm by movie's end. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), however, has a few problems. His wife has left him and taken his two sons with her. They are about to move to Oregon. He holds out hope of getting a bank loan, buying a rundown house and fixing it up to offer an alternative solution for his family and prevent their leaving.

The two men need to get to court on the same morning. Gavin has to deliver several files - including the all-important Power of Appointment - to prove the deceased father of a former friend signed control of his company over to Gavin's firm. Doyle is due at a custody hearing. But the two men wind up in a traffic accident. Gavin's car is still drivable, Doyle's is not. Doyle wants to do things the "right way" but Gavin, in a rush, offers a blank check and a shout of "better luck next time".

But once at the courthouse, Gavin realizes in his rush to leave the accident scene he left the red folder containing the Power of Appointment. He has until 5:00 to retrieve it and hand it in to the court otherwise his firm loses the desired fortune and Gavin could wind up in jail. Doyle arrives late for his hearing, his wife and kids are ushered out of the court room and Doyle finds himself alone, in the rain, and with the file.

The two men will wind up in a battle of wills for the remainder of the day. Gavin happening upon Doyle and Doyle telling him he threw away the file, which he did. Gavin turns to the help of a man "who gets people to do things they don't want to do". But Doyle will turn the tables on Gavin. So on, so forth. The movie's nature is that of a thriller but it does not function as a thriller. Director Roger Mitchell is far more interested in creating something more real and therefore more terrifying. There does not come a point where the two men stalk each other with guns, for instance. Crafty and vengeful one-liners refrain from making unwelcome appearances. These are two desperate men and - as the saying goes - desperate times call for desperate measures.

Doyle is a recovering alcoholic and we see him at a meeting and with his sponsor (William Hurt). But clearly there are still problems rippling below the surface, threatening to erupt. "Watch your metaphors," the sponsor advises when Doyle compares himself to champagne. This speech of Doyle's shows us how he walks an unending tightrope between efforts to change and collapsing back into old patterns. It could be argued that Doyle is more the victim in this situation than Gavin, but Doyle has his chances to right the confrontation and does not do it. "It's just the kind of thing that always happens to you. And it never happens to me unless I'm in your field of gravity." So says Doyle's wife at an important moment in a line that is both stinging and authentic, a characteristic found in much of the dialogue written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin. Their script proves movies don't necessarily require someone to throw a punch or shoot a gun to hurt a character to the utmost.

Gavin pulls the strings against Doyle at the outset, and again later, but he is not presented as some maniacal villain twisting his proverbial moustache in hideous glee. He's a guy in a no-win situation. Listen to the voicemail Gavin leaves for Doyle in wake of turning one of the initial screws on Doyle. This is the voice of a guy who's never done something of this sort. He even says "thank you" at the end. He's acting out of fear, and ultimately out of remorse.

Gavin will have a crisis of conscious, with Toni Collette offering tremendous supporting work as a co-worker at his law firm acting as his moral center. Did the deceased man willingly sign over his estate or did Gavin coerce him? Was Gavin coerced by his superiors to coerce him? Sydney Pollack plays both Gavin's boss and his father-in-law (I'll come back to that) as alternately smugly charming and just plain smug. He's kind and generous to Gavin until problems surface at which point rage instantly jumps into the fray. He delivers a crushing monologue near the end, revealing his own moral compass, wickedly skewed though it is.

There were critics who wondered why Gavin would not question the ethics of his employer and his own ethics until this one fateful 24 hour period. Why did all the personal problems wait to come to the front on this one day? It's not simply a screenwriting trick. The day is the catalyst. The increasing volatility of the day causes Gavin to bring his personal problems to the front.

The two men use their escalating confrontation as a platform to unleash their own rage - their frustration in relation to a world they both think is completely against them. At one point Gavin finds himself in a confessional booth with a Catholic priest. "Sometimes God just likes to put two guys in a paper bag and let 'em rip," Gavin says.

The film's center, its crux, its theme, however, can be found in a scene concerning Gavin's wife (Amanda Peet). After Gavin has revealed to his father-in-law that the needed file is missing, he receives a call from his wife. They meet for lunch. And she pours forth a speech so brutally devastating and honest and - in the end - so brutally manipulative that you are left without breath. It's honest-to-goodness worthy of Shakespeare in the way she lays it all out for him. It's an extraordinary moment and for this scene all by its brilliant lonesome Peet resoundingly deserved an Oscar nomination. This is why movies exist.

The film is not devoid of problems. At various points it does delve a bit into thriller territory, most especially when Doyle toys with Gavin's car and follows him in a taxi. The movie being set on Good Friday lends too much of a forced symbolism and once in awhile the screenplay has characters forcefeed points with lines of dialogue - "You're addicted to chaos." These flaws, I think, relegated the movie to backseat status, a mixed reception from critics and audiences. (Although, as usual, the esteemed Roger Ebert can be counted upon to see a film for what it is. Of this one he wrote how, "[it's a] thoughtful film that by its very existence shames studio movies that have been dumbed down into cat-and-mouse cartoons.") Most people it seems were more interested in highlighting its few flaws then in appreciating the overwhelming qualities it contains.

And this brings us to the conclusion. In this case it is almost impossible to forgive and forget. Arguably, "Changing Lanes" possesses the worst ending in cinematic history - a situation which can be attributed to several factors. First, the movie actually has a perfect end, it just chooses not to end with it. Gavin and Doyle have come face to face and Gavin offers an oration summarizing both men and their day and life in general. It's perfect. I remember watching it, my eyes widening, praying the film would be so bold as to end right here, right now. They cut away to an exterior shot and I leaned forward in my seat, screaming inside my head for it to conclude. It didn't. It went to another scene and I nearly stood up and walked out. There was no need to see what would happen next for I knew - it would completely reverse on itself and render everything the film had told us for two hours null and void. It still makes my blood boil.

Second, I firmly believe this end was not intended by the filmmakers. It feels so tacked-on that I cannot help but think the studio big-wigs (or a clueless test audience) saw it and were mortified. A film can't end this way, they thought. Who will leave the theater smiling and skipping to their car with a conclusion so morose? Thus, the second finale. If you listen to Roger Mitchell's director commentary on the DVD he admits the second finale footage was shot "last" and goes on to say - I'm quoting verbatim - "I'm still agnostic about whether it's the right way to end the film but it certainly does its job. The cowboy with the white hat shoots the cowboy with the black hat." If that isn't a director doing his darndest to sugarcoat blatantly idiotic studio interference then I don't know what it is.

Third, the end does fatally damage the film but it doesn't if you choose not to watch it. The ending is such an ungainly appendage that it becomes completely superfluous. Nothing that happens during the end was foreshadowed at any point during the rest of the film. If you don't watch the end, you miss nothing. It exists entirely on its own terms. And this is why you can simply stop the DVD once Gavin has given his speech and the movie truly ends (you'll know it when you see it, trust me).

And yet in some sort of strange, cosmic way this horrific tragedy of an end works as a summation of the film's theme. Inevitably and endlessly life is about compromise.

1 comment:

Wretched Genius said...

Sorry to have to correct you, but the worst ending in film history still belongs to Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.