Lives Collide In a New York Nightmare

Compelling yet off-putting, quietly realistic as well as completely contrived, shameless in the name of social responsibility, "Changing Lanes" is a frustrating yet deeply watchable melodrama that makes you think it's a tougher picture than it is.

"Changing Lanes" stars Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson as a pair of Manhattan motorists who have a bump-and-run collision on New York's FDR Drive and then take road rage to apocalyptic heights as they systematically attempt to ruin each other's lives.

Adeptly written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin and impressively directed by Roger Michell, "Changing Lanes" is especially good at bringing an urban nightmare to the screen. As its two protagonists live through the worst day in either of their lives, as they discover, as Affleck's character puts it, that "the world is a sewer," they increasingly disregard not only consideration and civility but also morality and even legality in their heedlessly self-centered zeal for one-upmanship and revenge. In fact, "Changing Lanes" is almost too successful in its ability to create a disturbing paranoid fantasy about all the ways determined enemies can hurt us in the modern world. So many dreadful events are visited on the protagonists that the question becomes not how plausible is this but rather, plausible or not, what's in it for anyone to watch these people suffer the modern equivalent of the woes of Job?

There are other difficulties as well. For all its initial provocativeness, its dystopian look at how quickly and decisively modern society can disintegrate, "Changing Lanes" is ultimately timid. Like a Disneyland ride, it gives us a glimpse of a contrived abyss and then carefully pulls back from the edge.

With all these problems, the film's undeniable pull on us is a tribute not only to the cleverness of the script and the passion of the actors but also to the surprising deftness director Michell shows with this kind of pulp fiction. Surprising because this is more than the British Michell's American debut; it's a film that couldn't be more different from his earlier successes.

Best known for the irresistible "Notting Hill" (1999), Michell also directed what might be the best of the 1990s spate of Jane Austen adaptations, "Persuasion" (1995). Michell's gift for the plausible, his determination to keep things low-key and his ability with actors, especially those in subsidiary roles, have made this story of everything going wrong, wrong, wrong much more convincing than it otherwise would be. One need only to compare "Changing Lanes" to 1993's dreadful Michael Douglas-starring "Falling Down" of a few years back to see how badly this film could have gone astray.

Though they're both New Yorkers, given the gap in their social statuses, the only way Gavin Banek (Affleck) and Doyle Gipson (Jackson) are likely ever to meet is through something like a traffic accident. Before that happens, "Changing Lanes" takes pains to show us why both men were especially keyed up on that particular morning.

Banek is a well-connected, successful New York attorney who has just helped his partners, including father-in-law Andrew Delano (Sydney Pollack), gain control of a foundation set up by a recently deceased philanthropist. The philanthropist's granddaughter is angry at this, but Banek feels he did nothing wrong. Still, he has to be in court at the appointed time to file the necessary documents or get into serious trouble.

Gipson is up against some very different, very personal dilemmas. He's a recovering alcoholic (William Hurt has a cameo as his sponsor) whose wife is trying to get custody of their two children so she can take them out of state. Gipson, who is buying a house to help stop this, must be in court at the appointed time if he has a prayer of sharing custody.

When these men's cars collide, their cultures do as well. Gipson, trying to reconstruct his life, says it's important for him to do things the right way, to be clean in all his actions. Banek, in a Masters of the Universe rush, has no such scruples. He hands Gipson a blank check and tears off, which turns out to be a big mistake.

For one thing, he's left Gipson, whose car is disabled, without a ride, meaning the critical custody hearing is over by the time he gets there. For another, once Banek's in court, he discovers that he's given the crucial papers, papers he must recover by the end of the day or risk going to jail (don't ask), to a man who now considers himself a sworn enemy.

As this conflict escalates, both men do expert jobs with their performances, with Affleck, who's been callow before (2000's "Boiler Room" and "Bounce"), having the more familiar role. Jackson's much more sympathetic Doyle Gipson, however, is a fascinating departure for the actor. His character is withdrawn, almost docile until aroused, a man of considerable gravity and the quietest possible authority.

It's a credit to director Michell and casting agents Ellen Lewis and Marcia De Bonis that "Changing Lanes'" smaller roles are as well done as the two leads. Almost every performance, from major supporters like Pollack, Toni Collette (as Banek's colleague) and Kim Staunton (as Valerie Gipson, Doyle's wife) to the smallest speaking parts, is touched by truth. It's a measure of this kind of skill that Amanda Peet, usually found in comic roles, gives a cool, focused, unexpected turn as Banek's calculating wife, Cynthia.

"Changing Lanes" does contain some truth about the heedlessness of modern society and the possibilities for redemption, but it's finally too content to tell us what we already know. Still, like any well-told story, no matter how familiar, you're going to want to watch this one through to the end.