Everyone likes to see lawyers squirm, especially high-priced estate lawyers who are pilfering from charities and cheating on their wives. Putting up with the flawed logic that undermines Changing Lanes is another matter. Despite the film's obvious good intentions and a nuanced performance from Samuel L. Jackson, Changing Lanes misses more targets than it hits.
Insurance salesman and recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) could lose his family unless he comes up with the mortgage for a house in Queens. Upscale lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) has antagonized a prestigious charitable foundation. Both men are on their way to court appearances when they collide on Manhattan's FDR Drive. When Gavin tries to bribe Doyle instead of exchanging insurance information, he sets into motion a chain of events that will bring them to the brink of ruin.
As a result of the accident, Doyle misses a hearing to determine custody of his two sons; what's worse, he learns that his wife Valerie (Kim Staunton) is planning to take them with her to Oregon. Gavin misplaces a file containing the only proof that his firm is authorized to manage the foundation, and could face fraud charges if he doesn't find it by the end of the day.
Gavin learns that Doyle has the file, but can't persuade him to return it. Afraid to reveal the entire truth to his boss and father-in-law Stephen Delano (Sydney Pollack), Gavin confides in his mistress Michelle (Toni Collette), a lawyer at the firm. She urges him to hire an Internet 'fixer' to destroy Doyle's credit rating.
Doyle retaliates as well, although what's more worrisome is whether he will resume drinking. But as Valerie points out, alcohol isn't really Doyle's problem, anger is. Still, as the day ends, both Doyle and Gavin are given a chance to change their lives for the better.
Changing Lanes deserves credit for at least raising challenging issues, although raising them and dealing with them intelligently are two different things. For all the hubbub, the messages here are dismayingly simple-minded. Stealing is wrong, no matter how tempting. Fraud, blackmail and identity theft are also wrong, although blackmail turns out to be okay if you're doing it for the right reasons.
It takes the screenwriters three glaringly illogical plot twists in the first 20 minutes to set up these points. Just about all the conflicts in the film could be solved with a minimum of common sense, while the manipulative happy ending effectively contradicts every worthwhile earlier moment.
Jackson works harder here than in most of his recent films, bringing a dignity and psychological realism to his role as a harried, volatile salesman. But it's his wife Valerie, played by Kim Staunton with a wholly understandable anger, who has the film's most on-target speech. She cuts through the artifice to show just how affecting Changing Lanes might have been.