Vigilantes Anonymous

Changing Lanes is a 12-step thriller; Human Nature is an untamed Being John Malkovich.

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The taut little morality play Changing Lanes (Paramount) could be the cornerstone of a new self-help group: Vigilantes Anonymous. That’s not too left-field an idea, since one of the dueling protagonists, Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), is a recovering alcoholic, and both his estranged wife (Kim Staunton) and AA sponsor (William Hurt) make the connection between his former addiction and the compulsive tit-for-tat revenge scenario in which he becomes embroiled. Doyle is driving to a custody hearing in lower Manhattan when he collides with a yuppie lawyer, Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), late for an important hearing himself and speeding to court in his Mercedes. With a $100 million trust hanging in the balance, Gavin flippantly hands Doyle a blank check and roars off, leaving the poorer, blacker, and now immobilized Doyle on the FDR Drive in the pouring rain. He also leaves behind a crucial file—which comes in handy when Doyle is late for court and loses his beloved sons to his fed-up spouse.

What follows is easy to predict and somewhat metronomical: Just as Doyle has a bout of conscience and decides to stop withholding the file, he discovers that Gavin cut his credit off; just as Gavin has a bout of conscience and decides to restore Doyle’s credit, he discovers that Doyle has murderously vandalized his car; and so on until … how far will it go? Both men are fundamentally decent, but neither has faith in the other’s decency. And their respective backs are against the wall: Without that file, Gavin is vulnerable to charges of massive fraud; without his credit, Doyle can’t get a loan to buy the ramshackle house that represents his last hope of keeping his kids on the East Coast.

Changing Lanes is directed by an Englishman, Roger Michell (Notting Hill [1999]), from a script credited to Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (The Player [1992], The New Age [1994]). It’s an elegant, civilized, and deeply liberal piece of craftsmanship, with the sort of social conscience you rarely encounter in a modern American thriller. True, it skirts goody-goodyness, but Michell’s tight framing reinforces the high psychological stakes, and the dialogue crackles with Tolkin-esque anti-capitalist perversity. When Gavin discovers that his boss and father-in-law (Sydney Pollack) has sliced off huge chunks of the trust under dispute (it’s intended to fund playgrounds in poor neighborhoods) for himself and his partners, he’s racked with doubts about the corporate legal world. In most legal melodramas that’s the cue for the wife to reinforce the hero’s integrity; but Changing Lanes dishes up the coolly gorgeous Amanda Peet to remind him frankly that if he’d had any integrity he’d never have gotten into the firm—or her pants. Pollack chimes in, too, to pose the question, “Who the fuck cares about your character struggle?”—a great line, delivered by one of the most wittily glib of privileged American show-business titans.

Michell gets fast, no-BS performances from all his actors—Pollack, Peet, Toni Collette as Gavin’s restive colleague, and especially Dylan Baker as the shiny-eyed specialist in shutting off peoples’ credit lines. Jackson gives a finely etched portrait of insufferably righteous rage. And then there’s Ben Affleck. It seems that the rest of the world has finally come around to my view of him as a smug, lunkish non-actor with few resources—right about the time that he has started to get interesting. This is his best, most focused, most convincingly internal performance—the first in which I’ve felt he was butting up against his own limitations to convey his character’s sudden helplessness. It’s hard to say … but maybe AA deserves some credit here, too.

If you look at Changing Lanes through the 12-step prism, Doyle’s and Gavin’s vendettas can be seen as furious attempts not to accept what (as “The Serenity Prayer” puts it) they cannot control. That makes them lost souls—a view that’s at odds with virtually every chest-thumping studio vigilante melodrama of the last few decades. (People who invoke “The Serenity Prayer” in American action pictures are usually the ones who get their heads blown off and require avenging.) It’s too bad that the one TV commercial I’ve seen for Changing Lanes pitched it as a straight black-revenge picture, with images of the angry Jackson and a message along the lines of: “They messed with him and he’s not gonna take it! Suck on this, white yuppie scum!” This suggests that even when Hollywood green-lights a film undermining the vigilante ethic, it still has to sell it by appealing to an enraged sense of entitlement. How will the movie play to an audience primed for blood?

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After the success of the dizzy psycho-farce Being John Malkovich (1999), screenwriter Charlie Kaufman evidently opened his bottom drawer and fished out Human Nature (Fine Line), an earlier script with some of the same themes. The characters are much less finely tuned and the climax is a botch, but the French-financed film is often a riot, and the sensibility is all there. Kaufman’s farce instincts are true—potentially as true as Christopher Durang’s, John Guare’s, and David O. Russell’s in Flirting With Disaster (1996). We’ll see. The struggle here is nominally between civilization and animal instinct, neither entirely hospitable to human nature; but the central characters have been so thoroughly screwed up by parents that it’s hard to imagine them comfortable in any realm, human or wild.

The three stars narrate the movie, telling their stories to three different audiences. Puff (Rhys Ifans) testifies to a congressional committee, Lila (Patricia Arquette) to a court that’s trying her for murder, Nathan (Tim Robbins) to … well, who knows? He’s dressed in white in a white room with the only bit of color the splotch of blood around a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Their childhoods were recipes for insanity. When Lila’s hormones went into overdrive and hair sprouted on her face and body, her mother assured her she’d never attract a man; so she took to the woods, where no one would judge her, and penned screeds against civilization that caught the fancy of the moneyed intelligentsia. Puff’s father stole his son and raised him in the wilderness as an ape. Nathan, on the other hand, was drilled (by parents played by Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster) to revere civilization and abhor the “filth” of natural instinct—to the point where he has devoted his scientific life to training mice to use cutlery (and use it correctly—the mice get shocks when they pick up the wrong fork for salad). When Nathan begins dating the half-wild Lila—and together they capture the wholly wild Puff—it’s a magically horrific brew.

The point at which tragedy becomes unbearable, great farce becomes feral, malicious, explosive; and some of the silliest gags come out of the deepest pain. The hirsute Lila moves among the beasts of the woods and warbles a Disney-esque ballad—and her freakishness mocks the repressive Disney aesthetic, in which the wild demi-humans of sea and forest look like Miss or Mr. America. Puff is caged in a lab where his retraining plays like a South Park version of Tarzan—he oscillates between spasmodic animal lust (promptly electrocuted) and twitty, top-hat-and-tails refinement. The deliciously pert Miranda Otto shows up as Nathan’s lovelorn French nurse—like a hallucination from Yiddish vaudeville.

Almost all the jokes, the cheap and the profound, have a marvelous snap—despite the almost consistent misdirection. Where Spike Jonze (a co-producer here) gave Malkovich a laid-back, slightly spacey tempo, Michel Gondry is right there in your face; if anything, he serves Kaufman too reverently. And he gets nothing out of the two leads. The part of Nathan shares the same flaw as John Cusack’s Craig in Malkovich: He shrinks in stature, to the point where we stop caring if he lives or dies; and Tim Robbins plays the role at zonked half-mast. (What happened to Robbins’ demented energy?) Patricia Arquette is sweet and (as always) game, but physically she’s drab and uninventive; she doesn’t begin to show the tension between Lila’s hormonal wildness and her longing for domesticity. It doesn’t help that Kaufman abandons the character. After she and Nathan stumble on Puff in the forest, Lila drops out of the movie, mysteriously content to abandon her readership and forest and play the wifely homebody. (Kaufman did better at dramatizing this character’s inner rage in Malkovich—he brought the jungle into the apartment.) Only Otto and Ifans (he was the cretinous roommate in NottingHill) have the unruly vitality this black farce needs, and it’s Ifans’ movie: He throws his whole body into his ape-man ejaculations, and when he addresses Congress his voice has the plummy resonance of Claude Rains.

The title Human Nature suggests that the picture is going to be a little generic, and there isn’t really a plot per se—just a set-up and a lot of jokes. But it isn’t much shallower than Michael Haneke’s sadomasochistic new French drama The Piano Teacher, in which Isabelle Huppert is a repressed teacher who takes out her rage on her students and, when she’s feeling particularly turbulent, mutilates herself. The movie is harrowing and has a fiercely concentrated performance by Huppert; but Human Nature makes a lot of the same points with more laughs and also animatronic mice. I remember Kaufman from a few pleasant encounters 30 years ago in our mutual hometown—so what’s with the gun-toting dwarf named Dr. Edelstein? After this and Monkeybone (2000), in which “Dr. Edelstein” almost pulls the plug on the comatose hero, I’m sensing a trend, but not one that’s going to do much for my stature.