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Changing Lanes
"Lawyers as swindlers — a novel idea"
Dir. Roger Michell; writ. Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin; feat. Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, Sydney Pollack, William Hurt (R)

Partner in a high-powered Wall Street law firm, 28-year-old Gavin Banek (Affleck) is one of those potentates of capitalism Tom Wolfe dubbed "Masters of the Universe." And the screenplay to Changing Lanes has more in common with Wolfe's 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities than just a common stereotype. In both, an automotive mishap renders a white plutocrat vulnerable to the actions of black rage. Rushing to court, Gavin collides with Doyle Gibson (Jackson), an insurance salesman on his way to divorce proceedings. Delayed by the crash, Doyle loses custody of his two sons. Gavin loses possession of documents crucial to his firm's claim as sole executors of $107 million. Doyle holds the files and will not return them. Changing Lanes portrays the struggle of two different, desperate men to inflict maximum damage on each other.

Described, by a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member (Hurt) as "addicted to chaos," Doyle will do anything to prevent his wife from moving their sons out to Oregon. Gavin will do anything to maintain the opulence into which he has married. His conscience is stirred by realization that the missing files are fraudulent, contrived by his loathsome father-in-law (Pollack). Though she calls the family business "a big vicious rumble," Gavin's wife is willing to stifle scruples in exchange for a yacht. What's a young attorney to do, aside from choosing another profession, like medieval literature, the otiose specialty of his wife's former lover?

Changing Lanes is a morality play that pretends movie companies travel a higher road than law firms. The film is a sententious exercise in equating legality with venality, but it is so intent on patting its own back that it suffers from ethical lumbago. — Steven G. Kellman

Human Nature
"Needs a sensitive director's touch"
Dir. Michel Gondry; writ. Charlie Kaufman; feat. Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette, Rhys Ifans (R)

In Charlie Kaufman's universe, body hair is a big deal. In Being John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz was transformed into a harpy by a bad coif, but hyperactive follicles take on bigger metaphoric weight in Human Nature, threatening to make us reevaluate the quality for which the film is named.

Is Patricia Arquette's Lila any less human, just because she's covered with thick hair from head to toe? Regardless, she flees the society of Homo sapiens, taking to the woods to roam naked and write best-selling books about the joys of the natural world. Alas, she eventually sheds her hair, and falls for Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a scientist whose life's mission is to squeeze messy reality into artificial structures — he teaches mice table manners.

Dr. Bronfman finds his King Kong in "Puff," a man-ape who proves receptive, after some reluctance, to the credo, "When in doubt, don't do what you really want to do" — Bronfman turns him into a refined gentleman. Wherever they're perched on the evolutionary ladder, though, each of the film's characters is destined to fail in the attempt to override life's basic impulses.

Into both the story he tells and the way he tells it, Kaufman crams enough oddities for a circus sideshow, all ripe for the kind of thematic dissection that greeted Malkovich. But director Michel Gondry (best known for his Björk videos), though adept at embellishing the tale with his own stylistic flourishes, has trouble capturing the souls of his characters. We're never made to care about any of these freaks, and without a little emotional investment, much of the film's humor falls flat.

This was a challenge for Malkovich, as well, but there director Spike Jonze and his cast overcame it. An off-kilter imagination is only half the battle when making a film that's truly unlike anything the audience has seen; and Kaufman has acknowledged as much by admitting that he wants to direct one of his own scripts in the near future, "to see what happens when I start with something and take it to the end rather than hand it off."

Until that time, his stories are in the hands of artists foolhardy enough to tackle them — so far, two men straight from the MTV trenches and one actor-turned-director. As Gondry demonstrates here, not everyone is quite up to the task. — John DeFore

"A poet's brief life blighted"
Writ. & dir. Leon Ichaso; feat. Benjamin Bratt, Talisa Soto, Giancarlo Esposito, Rita Moreno, Mandy Patinkin, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Irby (R)

Through no fault of his own, Miguel Piñero figured in the most embarrassing episode in San Antonio's cultural history prior to City Council's declaration of war on the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. In 1985, Bernardo Eureste, a Council member who made himself in effect municipal arts czar, decided, without bothering to see it, that a film adaptation of Piñero's prison drama Short Eyes was obscene. He threatened to padlock the Guadalupe Theater if it proceeded with a scheduled screening of the film. But the Guadalupe, then still a fledgling operation, called Eureste's bluff, and those few of us who ventured to the embattled building late saw nothing unusual beyond a gritty slice of jailhouse life.

The appearance of Piñero here now lacks the same drama, either extrinsic or intrinsic. It is the disjointed account of a brief, disjointed life. Dead of cirrhosis at 40, Piñero (Bratt) was a shooting star who could not balance his accomplishments as playwright, poet, and actor with his compulsion to shoot up heroin and commit armed robbery. "Writing is one-half inspiration, one-half inhalation," snorts the junkie founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe who ended up homeless. Some of the many friends he alienated scattered Piñero's ashes on the Lower East Side. The scenes that writer-director Leon Ichaso scatters throughout his sullen biopic make us mourn the man's blighted promise more than his life. — Steven G. Kellman

Life or Something Like It
"Sometimes witty, sometimes flat"
Dir. Stephen Herek; writ. John Scott Shepherd and Dana Stevens; feat. Angelina Jolie, Edward Burns, Tony Shalhoub, Christian Kane, and Stockard Channing (PG-13)

Define love. What is it that connects us? What beliefs or dreams do we share? These complex inquiries are sandwiched between sometimes witty, sometimes flat banter between uppity, blonde broadcast reporter Lanie (Jolie) and her earthy cameraman Pete (Burns), in a romantic comedy about the value of life. Superficial Lanie does not begin to ponder these heavy questions until a vagabond prophet predicts her death will occur in one week.

Like any story in which life alterations happen in a matter of days, this one is oversimplified, a bit hokey, and very predictable. Lanie suddenly seems to find inner peace only when she looses her makeup and nice clothes, overindulges in sweets and alcohol, and dumps one hot boyfriend for another, more down-to-earth, but equally hot one. It's a tad refreshing to see Jolie in a role where she's not a badass or manipulative vamp, but the cameras still tend to linger on her trademark lips and hips.

A plus: Some of the shots and sequences are fairly experimental for a shallow-think film. A minus: Some of those same scenes are riddled with shameless advertisements for random grocery store products. — Xelena González

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