Naturally, it’s Good Friday when drunk-on-life attorney Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) tangles in a Manhattan fender bender with recovering alcoholic drone Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson). An average Friday wouldn’t signify enough in the twisty sin-and-salvation homily Changing Lanes, a teasing drama whose relentless good-deed/bad-deed reversals are just interesting enough to make a sinner like me pray for an even more interesting, less symmetrical, less obviously cross-shaped creation.
On this day of all days, when Christians solemnly commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus, Banek, hustling to court in his shiny BMW to screw with a dead man’s will, collides with Gipson, hustling to court in his banged-up crapmobile to plead for joint custody of his sons. Banek, a man on top, can’t be bothered to exchange insurance information — a blank check is his idea of atonement — but in his haste, he drops a file with the crucial legal document needed to pocket millions from the estate for the law firm headed by his father-in-law (Sydney Pollack). Gipson, a man climbing back from rock bottom, picks up the danger-orange-colored file and sticks it in his pocket, not knowing what he possesses. He arrives late to court, just in time to hear the judge award sole custody of his boys to his ex-wife (Kim Staunton), who plans to move with them to Oregon.
And thus do two men experience death and resurrection on a raw day in a hard-hearted city tinted a convincing shade of nervous gray by cinematographer Salvatore Totino and production designer Kristi Zea. Banek tracks Gipson down and asks for the file. Gipson, in his anger, refuses. Banek hires a computer hacker (Dylan Baker) to mess with Gipson’s bank records. Gipson, in despair, contemplates a drink. (William Hurt plays his AA sponsor; the cast is dotted with fine New York stage actors creating strong, quick impressions, including Joe Grifasi as a divorce-court judge and John Benjamin Hickey as an ad guy on a barstool.) The stakes get higher still when Banek begins to doubt the ethics of his entire stinking firm. At some point in his apoplexy, each man contemplates doing in the other.
Roger Michell, the British theater and TV director, better known for selling a happy-all-the-time London in ”Notting Hill,” comes out swinging at NYC chaos: He and Totino go in for handheld camera jitters, documentary-style slanted and cropped shots, even splotches of always useful rain (the kind that falls on the rich and the poor alike). And there are many moments when the movie is expertly moved along just by the look and rhythm of the thing — the way scenes of a damp basement AA meeting elide into scenes of plush law-office entitlement, the way shadow and light cast patterns in a church confessional booth.
But for all the atmospheric stylishness, and as much I love seeing Manhattan moviescapes from that recent-yet-long-ago era that include the World Trade Center in the skyline, ”Changing Lanes” isn’t a movie that can get by on visual punch. It’s not even a movie that can swagger along on performance, for all the lung power exercised by Affleck (working from the first page of the Affleck handbook, i.e., oozing the oily charm of a smug, fleshy bastard in need of a comeuppance) and Jackson (turning to the third page of his guidebook, i.e., condensing coal-hard fury into diamond-sharp concentration). Instead, ”Changing Lanes” is a movie about moral conundrums, and more specifically, talk about moral conundrums. Which is to say, it’s self-consciously in love with its own words.
And this script — by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, from Taylor’s story — sticks so earnestly to the road map of a Fred Friendly seminar in ethical decision-making that after a while one might begin to root for some unpunished rule-breaking to occur. I don’t know how the writing duties divided up line for line. But the talk and the thoughts and the notions feel very much the province of Tolkin — author of ”The Player,” ”The New Age,” and ”The Rapture” — who so loves a good theological or moral argument that he’s likely to put big-picture speeches in the mouths of even the most average-brained characters. ”The law is a big, vicious rumble,” Banek’s venal wife, Cynthia (Amanda Peet), informs him at a command-performance lunch during which she spells out just how little right or wrong matter to her compared with the lifestyle she wants.
It’s telling, I think, that the most compelling character in this passion play is a relatively minor figure, Banek’s unflappable, generous, corner-cutting, law-breaking father-in-law, who is so easily and comfortably played by Pollack that you’d follow him into even the grayest of ethical zones. ”At the end of the day, I do more good than harm,” he explains. The lack of resolution about that equivocal position is welcome — something in the text actually worth discussing in the American Church of the Studio Movie.