' ' Cinema Romantico: Small Roles...Big Performances: Amanda Peet in "Changing Lanes"

Monday, October 01, 2012

Small Roles...Big Performances: Amanda Peet in "Changing Lanes"

My friend Ruth of the ultra-fantastic Flixchatter is hosting an extra-ultra-fantastic blogathon today - Small Roles...Big Performances. The idea being to, she writes, "shine a spotlight on the 'unsung heroes' if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness/entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don't get the credit they so deserve."  

“Did you know my father had a mistress for twenty years?” That is a fairly load-bearing line to use as your character’s introduction but it is with those very eleven words that we are finally, at the halfway point of "Changing Lanes", introduced to Amanda Peet’s Cynthia Banek.

Often when we think of certain actors or actresses a very specific role jumps to mind, but in the case of the consistently employed if still under the radar Amanda Peet I was not entirely sure this was the case. I asked a few of my friends, movie geeks and non-movie geeks alike, what role to jumped to mind when they thought of her. Their answers seesawed between “Saving Silverman” and “The Whole Nine Yards” – well, all except for my friend Brad who wrote “the title that springs to mind is ‘The Whole Nine Yards’, but the accompanying image is ‘Igby Goes Down.’” Judging by the responses, I dare say Ms. Peet is generally thought of perhaps not so much for a specific role as much as she is specifically as a comedienne. This, however, ignores her work in, say, “Identity”, “Syriana”, “2012”, or even in Terrence Malick’s recently premiered “To the Wonder” in which her scenes were (surprise!) cut. That, however, ignores her many contributions to both television and the stage. So PERHAPS Ms. Peet is simply a Girl Friday, capable of anything, willing to do everything, though never to stand out so much as to have that starring light shine down on her.

And that is bloody well wrong.

Roger Michell’s 2002 drama “Changing Lanes” centers around two men, Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), from opposite sides of the American spectrum, a hotshot lawyer and a hotheaded recovering alcoholic. They are headed to an NYC courthouse, Gavin to deliver a power of appointment to prove a dying man's million dollar foundation was signed over to his lawn firm and Doyle to make one last ditch effort to stop his ex-wife from taking his two sons away to Oregon. They, as they must, get in a car crash. Gavin simply hands Doyle a blank check, only to also unwittingly hand him the power of appointment. The remainder of the film is Gavin attempting to reclaim his file - lest he go to jail and screw his law firm - and Doyle being messed with by Gavin, messing right back with him and coming to terms with the fact that he's less an alcoholic than a rageaholic. If it sounds a bit banal, a bit been there/done that, it isn't, I assure you, and instead overcomes its inherent and somewhat gimmicky nature through sheer execution and via its performances.

As the film progresses, Gavin realizes the firm for which he works is less above the board than he perhaps let himself realize and that he is less above the board than he perhaps let himself realize. And when he confesses to the partners his sin, they decide to absolve him by forging the power of appointment and having him file the forgery. Gavin says he won't do it. And shortly after, his wife, Cynthia, rings him up to meet her for lunch.

The first detail you will notice about Peet in this scene is her voice. "Changing Lanes" is a movie packed with loud talkers. Sure, Jackson opens the film containing his inner Samuel L., but you always sense it waiting to bust out. It will. Affleck is smooth until be becomes harried. Ditto Pollack. This is a group that wants to be in control and frets when that isn't the case. All except for Peet. Throughout her chat with her hubby at the white tablecloth, her voice never rises. Yet, her voice carries further than anyone's.

She makes that clear upon breaking the ice by mentioning her father's mistress. She explains her mother didn't mind. Because of the lifestyle that was afforded to her and her husband's cheating was a by-product of that lifestyle. Kinda like Gavin cheating with his comely co-worker (Toni Collette). Yeah. She knew about that too.

Gavin looks ready for the shouting. Cynthia doesn't shout. She keeps cool. She understands the score of the game. "I could have married a professor of Middle English, so long as he had tenure at Princeton," she explains. "But I didn't. I married a Wall Street lawyer." She knows she needs him to stay in the money. Which is she why softens the blow of revealing his extra-marital affair herself by explaining she loves him in spite of it.

This, you see, isn't a conversation. It's a speech. It's a wife manipulating her husband into saying exactly what she wants him to say and she does it evilly and skillfully without him even realizing it. Until he does realize it, at which point she deflects the manipulation by referencing something else and getting him to smile and laugh.

"Look into my eyes. Obey my command."
One could argue Cynthia has a little Lady Macbeth in her but this ignores the fact that eventually Macbeth's Lady came undone by the guilt of what she'd done. Cynthia Banek feels no guilt. Because Amanda Peet lets her feel no guilt. Ethics? Ha! Ethics are for the weak.

And when she gets up from the table she looks down, around, anywhere but into the eyes of her husband, and this presents pause and makes us wonder if maybe, just maybe, she does feel guilt. But then she goes in for the kiss - no, no, no, not on the lips. On the forehead. Less I Love You, more the Stamp of Approval. "Go forth," it's saying, "and do my bidding." And if he gets busted for forgery, he gets busted for forgery. Cynthia can always marry a professor of Middle English.

So long as he has tenure at Princeton.


Anonymous said...

Hey thanks for that fantastic intro Nick! I'm glad you chose miss Peet as I too think of her as a pretty comedienne, but you've made a great case that she has dramatic chops!

I actually saw Changing Lanes years ago but didn't remember Peet's role, well until now that is.

Thanks for taking part on the blogathon!

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks for hosting! I loved this blogathon. Always looking for an excuse to write about this role. Now I need to go read the others.

Alex Withrow said...

This is the best post I've seen for Ruth's blogathon. Both because of the criminally underrated performance you chose to write about, and because of the perfect detail in which you explained your choice.

Peet's scene in this film was the highlight of the movie. She played it like a champ. I love her dramatic work and wish she had the opportunity to deliver more of it.

Excellent work, Nick.

Nick Prigge said...

Dude, thank you. Kind words.

Glad you've seen it and dug her in it. In a perfect world it would have opened her up to more chances for truly dramatic work. Alas.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this movie, but I can see that this is an unforgettable character. I loved the comparison to Lady Macbeth (without the guilt). :-) Excellent detailed character description!

Nick Prigge said...

I really think this is an underrated movie. Like I said in the piece, the premise sounds a little schlocky but the execution more than makes up for it. And Amanda Peet truly is the highlight. Thanks for reading!