Audiences want a happy ending. Giving audiences what they want is a good business decision. Usually, these two Laws of Film coincide with the artistic intent and moral consistency of a movie.
But every once in a while audiences are wrong, and giving them what they want ruins an otherwise artful, morally consistent tale. Changing Lanes is such a tale. It could have been outstanding, if not for that last five minutes of screen time.
Having a Bad Day
R for language
“Sometimes God likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let ‘em rip.” So says Gavin (Ben Affleck) on one of the worst days of his life. This morning he had a fender-bender with Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson) and in the mix-up, he lost a very important file. Without the file, Gavin and his bosses, partners in a lucrative law firm, could get into serious legal and financial trouble.
Gavin tried to be reasonable at the accident. He was even willing to leave Doyle a blank check to cover the damages, but the other man just wouldn’t have it. Doyle insisted on doing things “the right way,” which was simply going to take too long. Gavin had to drive off for his appearance in court.
Doyle’s day hasn’t been much better. Gavin left him standing in traffic, wishing him a hollow “better luck next time.” Because of the accident, he missed an important hearing. His wife got sole custody of their kids, and the judge cleared the way for her to move to Oregon. Visitation won’t even be an option for Doyle, who can’t afford airfare.
Doyle’s loss is even more bitter considering he had just secured a loan that morning to buy a house for his wife and kids. He wasn’t even going to insist on living with them until his wife was ready to take him back. He was going to be happy just knowing they were in New York, just across town. But that’s all ruined thanks to the rich yuppie jerk on the expressway.
Gavin never should have left the scene of the accident, but he did, and later he is sorry. Doyle should have returned the document right away, but he was angry so he didn’t, and later he is sorry. In Changing Lanes, when one man is contrite, the other is too angry to forgive. And so their conflict escalates throughout the day, each man taking revenge for the most recent act of injustice. “An eye for an eye” leaves everyone blind.
Written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, the screenplay is an excellent study of aggression and revenge. It could easily stand as a metaphor for the fighting between Israel and Palestine, between black and white in America, or between the haves and the have-nots anywhere in the world.
The best thing about the script is that it never feels contrived. By necessity, Jackson’s and Affleck’s characters meet more often than chance alone could account for. Their stories are also “coincidentally” parallel, considering how different their lives are. It would have been easy for a bad pair of writers to make these coincidences implausible, but Taylor and Tolkin keep the parallels subtle and meaningful.
Part of the credit for making the movie believable goes to the actors. Samuel L. Jackson in particular seems to have salvaged his character from being overwritten. Doyle is an alcoholic. He’s on the verge of losing his children. He’s got a crummy job telemarketing for an insurance company. Doyle almost comes across as a caricature, but Jackson grounds the performance with a tension and barely-controlled frustration that makes you believe his life really is that bad.
Ben Affleck probably isn’t as talented as Jackson. Most of the time his job is to look handsome and professional. But Gavin is not a straw man. He is not a scapegoat or a two-dimensional villain. He is a real person with troubles and joys of his own, including a lovely wife and an understanding mistress. He is troubled by the events of the day in a way that no cardboard bad guy could be. The genius of this movie is that it makes both characters sympathetic. Both are approachable, and at the end of the day, both are equally wrong and pigheaded.
Because the characters’ lives are so different, they don’t spend a lot of screen time together, which creates a challenge for the editor, Christopher Tellefsen. At key transition points, Tellefsen intercuts the two stories, drawing parallels and making contrasts between the two men. With this rhythm, the movie is even more interesting. It becomes a metaphor for larger issues.
One critic left the theater saying the movie was a metaphor for American society. He noted that the race card is played pretty strongly. Doyle gets into a fight with two white ad-men in a bar, talking about “cute little black kids,” which sets off Samuel L. Jackson’s rant about Tiger Woods’ dad being mistaken for a caddy.
For me, the big difference is not race, but class. Doyle has a crappy job, and just now, late in life, is finally earning enough to get a loan for his first house. On the other hand, money is meaningless to Gavin. He is ready to leave a stranger with a blank check, figuring whatever gets spent repairing the aging economy car can’t possibly compare to the payments on his own brand-new Mercedes.
Affleck’s character is a little more trapped by the situation because he has more to lose. Then again, he has more leeway within the legal system. One particularly interesting parallel is that both men are late for a court appointment because of the accident. Gavin’s judge asks if he is okay, if anyone was hurt, and begins the proceedings once he arrives. Doyle’s judge starts without him and shows him no sympathy.
The Moral of the Story
My favorite aspect of this movie is the moral tale that underlies the whole film. Both men go through periods of contrition and anger, wavering between the high road of forgiveness and the low road of revenge.
At this point, I may reveal the outcome of the movie, so if you need a surprise, stop here.
The apparently-intended endings for our two characters are right on target. By the end of the day, Doyle is in jail, the victim of a cruel trap set by Gavin. Doyle is able to convince his wife that this is all Gavin’s fault. And yet she decides to leave him anyway, because a better man wouldn’t react with anger and volatility like he did. Her decision is refreshingly sincere. It is not a plot device introduced for artificial conflict, but a logical choice by her character. So in spite of his best efforts, Doyle is going to be out of luck. All he can do is work day by to try to earn the respect of his family.
As for Gavin, he sees that choosing a more moral life is an option. On this one crazy day, he considers turning himself to the authorities over his crooked dealings. He even decides that if he does turn himself in, he won’t turn in his bosses. They have to write their own confessions. Redemption can only come from within. But at end of day, Gavin decides not to confess and simply to mourn the loss of his innocence.
What a difficult thing for audiences to accept. The poor man loses his family and the rich man goes unpunished. And yet what an honest portrayal of the futility of fighting and of the unfairness of the American Way.
Still, test audiences hated the ending and so Paramount changed it. The audience gets what it wants, even at the expense of moral consistency. Even though the movie is outstanding, the tacked-on ending detracts noticeably. It’s a disappointment that is overcome by the quality of the rest of the movie, but it is a disappointment nonetheless.