A Game of Hit-and-Run

Here it is: a provocative, beautifully made American thriller with a tightly controlled sense of panic, a brilliant ensemble of actors, throat-clutching tension admirably bereft of violence, and enough moral issues to keep you chewing your upper lip, lost in thought, for days. In addition to gluing you to the edge of your seat, Changing Lanes is also a film of freshness, imagination and insight, with two intense performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck that will surprise even their most ardent admirers.

On a normal New York morning, two strangers, one black, one white-as different from one another as high noon is from midnight-rush feverishly to their urgent appointments. Like everybody else in New York, they are running late. The black man (Jackson), an insurance salesman and recovering alcoholic in danger of losing his wife and two sons, has just secured a coveted bank loan for a down payment on a house that might keep his family together. He is flying to a courtroom child-custody hearing, the outcome of which will alter his future. The white man (Affleck) is a rich, handsome Wall Street attorney who is also on his way to court for a career-building case that means millions of dollars for his firm. In a traffic jam on the F.D.R. Drive, during a routine fender-bender, two lives intersect and two worlds collide, with harrowing consequences.

Late for the hearing and losing his custody fight as a result, the salesman goes haywire with anguish. Recklessly fleeing the scene before the police arrive, the lawyer leaves behind the important legal documents that can win his case. Without that missing file, his law firm can be sued for fraud. In the next 24 hours, two busy, stressed-out, otherwise rational New Yorkers in a hurry must find each other in order to survive. Exasperation turns to rage and revenge, and a dangerous game of “Gotcha!” ensues all over town. Defeated, Mr. Jackson keeps the files. Frustrated and desperate, Mr. Affleck gets even by hiring a computer hacker to destroy the poor man’s credit and drive him into bankruptcy.

For all of its thrilling vengeance, Changing Lanes opens your eyes both to the terrible things ordinary people can do to each other in one day, and the ethics with which men reduced to monsters can still find redemption. Beneath their anger and beyond their determination to destroy each other, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Affleck’s characters are still responsible men with moral centers, men whose intelligence separates them from beasts. Through a series of smashing plot twists, they end up saving each other, finding their consciences and acting on their own sense of principle. Unlike most Hollywood thrillers, in which the action ends in chaos, Changing Lanes keeps a firm grip on its trajectory. The final scene, guided with reserve and deadly aim by Roger Michell, the award-winning British director of Notting Hill , has the punch of Mike Tyson’s fist.

The emotional weight of a brainy but believable script by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin keeps you focused while the lives onscreen unravel. An excellent cast-which includes Toni Collette as Mr. Affleck’s former mistress, Sydney Pollack as his corrupt father-in-law and senior law partner, Amanda Peet as his cynical trophy wife, William Hurt as Mr. Jackson’s tough, pragmatic Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and Kim Staunton as Mr. Jackson’s long-suffering wife-contributes vivid character portraits to a film that is as much about diversity of character as it is about suspense. But it’s really Mr. Jackson’s indelible Everyman at the end of his rope that rivets attention. And unless I’m losing it, Mr. Affleck has really learned how to act. His organic performance, rangy and sure, more than makes up for the agonies of Pearl Harbor .

One of the film’s strengths is the way it makes every character so completely understandable that you can’t resist taking sides. Like the changing lanes of the title, changing sympathy for the characters is a key element. From the elegant law-firm walls lined with Mark Rothkos to the dark-paneled Irish pub where Mr. Jackson almost wrecks his sobriety, from the churches, schools and expensive restaurants to the broken pay phones on the side streets, the changing face of New York is an almost primal force in Changing Lanes . This is not just another filmed-in-New-York movie that dips the sharp edges of the city in marzipan. It’s a New York movie from start to finish, and it’s rewarding, exemplary and shattering. Who expected so much fine work so early in an otherwise dismal movie year?

Welcome Back, Bogdanovich!?

There’s more good stuff in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow . Forget the awful title, which suggests a Roaring 20’s comedy. The movie has gold-digging flappers and foppish Dapper Dans guzzling Prohibition rye, dancing the Charleston and smoking reefers, but it has more on its mind than style-mainly an inquest into the kind of scandal from which Hollywood legends are born: to wit, the shady circumstances surrounding the mysterious murder of movie mogul Thomas Ince on the luxury yacht of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. This is the kind of lurid fodder that keeps Mysteries & Scandals going on the E! channel, but Mr. Bogdanovich-back in top form after a dry period that has dragged on too long-investigates his subject with real panache, sweeping away the cobwebs that have mired this case in rumor and innuendo in the Hollywood archives for decades. For one thing, it explains why Louella Parsons became the most powerful gossip columnist in celebrity journalism. What really happened? Eighty years later, inquiring minds still want to know.

Mr. Bogdanovich provides the answers. To the strains of Al Jolson singing “Avalon,” the Hearst yacht sails in 1924 with 14 passengers, including Charlie Chaplin; titillating author Elinor Glyn; Hearst’s mistress, film star Marion Davies; and Louella, a vulgar, loud-mouthed nitwit anxious to move up from writing movie reviews to an influential daily column in the syndicated Hearst newspapers. “I think this is going to be a most enjoyable boat ride,” she gurgles. “Yeah,” replies Ince, “the cat’s meow.” In this fascinating cruise, Mr. Bogdanovich depicts Hearst (Edward Herrmann) as a paunchy old eccentric who fires guns at seagulls and pulls chairs out from under his guests. But as the champagne flows, the tensions mount. Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) is an egocentric little creep who, according to Mr. Bogdanovich, is also having an affair with Davies (Kirsten Dunst), despite the fact that he has just made his co-star Lita Grey pregnant. The outraged Hearst watches the whole affair through a hole in the ceiling of Marion’s cabin.

In The Cat’s Meow , it is suggested that Ince (Cary Elwes), a moody, depressed MGM executive and film producer who had fallen out of favor with Irving Thalberg and whose looks and power were fading, tagged along to pressure Hearst into a business merger, and became the victim of a stupid accident after showing his host a crumpled love letter to his mistress from the smarmy, womanizing Chaplin. According to Mr. Bogdanovich, Hearst killed Ince by mistake, believing him to be Chaplin-and the whole thing was witnessed by Louella (Jennifer Tilly), who was canny enough to muscle her way into a lifetime contract in return for her silence. The San Diego D.A. declared that Ince’s death was due to heart failure brought on by indigestion. Obscured in a haze of misinformation (much of it created by the powerful Hearst machine and our girl Louella), the case has remained a footnote to Hollywood history-until now. No logs, records or photos remain, and all accounts differ. But the lurid tale of murder and blackmail was passed down to Bogdanovich by his mentor Orson Welles, who heard it firsthand from Marion Davies’ nephew, and Steven Peros came up with just the right script to do the legend justice.

Whatever the real facts were, it is true that after the tragedy, the salary of Ince’s mistress, the actress Margaret Livingston, soared and she later married bandleader Paul Whiteman. Marion Davies retired from the screen in 1937, but stayed with Hearst until he died at the ripe old age of 88. Louella lived for decades, tormenting everyone in the movie industry. She kept her mouth shut.

The swell cast is ripe and gamy, the décor sumptuous, the passions feverish. The Cat’s Meow adds up to a lavish, lascivious, elegant and enjoyable entertainment that successfully increases the adrenaline of movie fans who devour old Hollywood clippings like Reese’s Pieces, while ceremoniously welcoming Peter Bogdanovich back to the director’s chair where he so rightfully belongs.

Rodgers Round-Up

Caught up in the frenzy of Richard Rodgers’ centennial year, I’m happy to report the hills are alive with everything from the archival footage of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein television specials at the Museum of Television & Radio to a long and laborious Broadway revival of Oklahoma! The latter is an overproduced, hyperventilating production pretending to be the same one that took London by storm, but I am here to tell you that without the sensational, magnetic and overwhelming virility of Hugh Jackman as Curly, it is a tiresome replica. For real fireworks, make your reservations now for this dynamic star’s one-night concert version of Carousel coming up at Carnegie Hall. In the interim, don’t miss the gorgeous new CD, Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein (Angel Classics), showcasing the dimpled dumpling of a diva in her finest hour. The 13 selections, ravishingly refurbished in Jonathan Tunick’s glamorous orchestral arrangements, include obvious classics like “Mister Snow” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” and obscure delights like the harmonically stunning “So Far” (from Allegro ) and the dreamy, delectable “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World” (from Anita Loos’ play Happy Birthday ). The centerpiece is an unconventional and unforgettable burlesque-queen version of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” that will knock your socks off. The full range and versatility of Ms. Peters’ particular brand of voodoo has never been heard to better advantage, and neither have the enduring songs of Mr. Rodgers. You can almost hear his approval from here.

A Game of Hit-and-Run