Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judge J. Howard Sundermann, Jr.
First Appellate District of Ohio


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Affleck works for a law firm where ethics are a distraction or a hurdle to be overcome. Over the course of the day, he commits a series of improper acts to protect his privileged life.

Feature article

Changing Lanes

by Judge J. Howard Sundermann

Changing Lanes is modern day film noir-- not Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat saving Lauren Bacall, but a gray urban setting where the main characters must make moral choices in a world that seems corrupt and uncaring. This is a character-centered film that takes place in one long day.

Ben Affleck plays a young yuppie lawyer and Samuel L. Jackson plays a middle-class man who is trying to keep his wife and family from leaving him. These two actors are very good in their parts, especially Jackson. Both of these two very different men are on their way to court that morning for very different reasons. Affleck needs to present a document that shows a deceased billionaire turned over control of his foundation to Affleck's law firm. The billionaire was induced to sign when he was incompetent and near death. Jackson is on his way to a domestic hearing armed with a bank loan approval to show to the court his plan to buy a house, hoping to convince his fed-up wife not to move out of town with his two sons. On the way to court, the two have a fender-bender, in which no one is hurt. Jackson wants to exchange information and call the police, but Affleck, who is in a hurry, hands Jackson a check and drives off, leaving Jackson stranded in the middle of the street. Neither one of them has good luck when they arrive late for court. Jackson arrives as the hearing is concluding and an uncaring judge gives him no chance to present his plan. His wife sees his being late as another example of his inability to deal with problems and says she is moving. He is bitter and incensed. Affleck realizes that he has left the important documents at the scene of the accident and is given until the end of the day to produce them or he loses his case. Jackson, feeling aggrieved, refuses to turn the documents over to Affleck, and the rest of the film is a battle between Jackson and Affleck. We find out a lot about the two men during the course of this day, their flaws and their strengths, and they find out a lot about themselves. During the film, both become able to see themselves as others might see them. Their journey of self-discovery is worth the trip for moviegoers.

Jackson clearly loves his wife and children and is a decent, kind-hearted person. He is also a recovering alcoholic and cannot seem to stop doing dangerous and stupid things. His goal is to put his life back together and save his family.

Affleck works for a law firm where ethics are a distraction or a hurdle to be overcome. Over the course of the day, he commits a series of improper acts to protect his privileged life. He leaves the scene of an accident, assists in defrauding a charity, wrongly bankrupts a person, and is on the verge of forging legal documents. He married the boss's daughter, so he is an up-and-comer at the law firm.

Director Sydney Pollack, who as always is great as a rich and cynical lawyer, plays Affleck's father-in-law and the senior partner. In a revealing scene, while Affleck is having lunch with his wife, she tells him she knows all about her father's corruption and unfaithfulness. Like her mother, she has made her bargain with the devil and expects Affleck to do what is necessary to maintain their Wall Street life style. The film is not very kind to lawyers and leaves the all-too-typical Hollywood impression that the only way to be successful in the practice is to sell out in some way.

Because he felt mistreated, Jackson refuses to return the file back to Affleck. Affleck then goes to a guy "who can fix things." This person gets into the computer and foils Jackson's credit rating so his home loan is disapproved. The two go back and forth seeking revenge, but this is more than a film about revenge; it is about the lives and character of the two men. The film is shot entirely in New York City and is done in an almost documentary style. Director Roger Michell, who did the very different romantic comedy Notting Hill, shows here the same good touch for character and relationships.

The upbeat ending seems like it was tacked on after some preview audiences requested it, but this is a really good film. Lawyers take a beating, but that is not a novelty anymore.

Posted may 21, 2002

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