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Pavement pounded

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Issue: "Who is Tom Daschle?," Oct. 12, 2002

Watching Hollywood grapple with religious themes is always intriguing, mostly because it so rarely gets them right. Changing Lanes, recently released on video, doesn't get them right either but at least attempts to deal with moral issues, with some patent Christian allusions.

The film (rated R: bad language and some references to adultery) was written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin. This is Mr. Taylor's first screenplay, but veteran Mr. Tolkin is no stranger to religious themes, having written and directed The Rapture, a film rich with (misguided) Christian imagery.

Changing Lanes begins by introducing the audience to Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), a successful young Manhattan attorney, and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), a weary man trying to piece together the shambles of his life. Neither character is stock, and their moral ambiguity is one of the film's great strengths, particularly as the plot becomes more and more frenzied and contrived.

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Banek and Gipson are both going to court: Banek to file a document that will allow his law firm to seize control of a well-funded charitable foundation, Gipson to argue for visitation rights to his two young sons, preventing their mother from taking them to live in Oregon. The two men meet abruptly on a freeway in a fender bender that sends Gipson's car crashing into the center divider.

Neither is hurt, and initially both are polite. But when Gipson, a recovering alcoholic, insists on "doing things the right way," Banek becomes frustrated. Rather than taking the time to exchange insurance information, Banek thrusts a signed, blank check at Gipson, jumps into his only moderately damaged car, and leaves the hapless Gipson standing stranded on the highway in the rain.

Not surprisingly, Gipson is late for his court appointment, and his wife gains sole custody of their children. Banek makes his hearing, but without a document that authenticates his firm's right to control the foundation. In his haste to leave the accident, Banek left the folder with Gipson.

Banek wants-needs-his folder back. Gipson wants something he can't have: his morning back. His carefully prepared speech about the need his boys have for a father went unspoken, his cause lost. Thus begins a (sometimes preposterous) cycle of revenge and manipulation, each man trying to hurt the other-each with some life lessons to learn.

All of the action takes place on Good Friday, heightening the sense of spiritual transformation that runs through the film. At one point, Banek ends up in a Roman Catholic church, demanding meaning for the chaos that surrounds him from a somewhat befuddled priest.

Changing Lanes gets the idea of redemption all wrong, wrapping the film up in a happy little bow at its conclusion. There are, however, some great moments along the way, and the filmmakers make an admirable attempt to confront the ethical and character issues at the root of each man's existence.

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