Raffi Nakashian, with his fourth re-view in two months, is kicking major ass, and he has covered a good range of genres already, something we encourage here at 10YA. So now behold his revisiting of a movie that deserves a great deal more attention than it got, even with that tacked-on Hollywood ending bullshit.
Last year, on a drive back from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, a driver next to me began changing lanes without looking and bumped right into the side of my car at thirty-five miles per hour. I pulled over like any responsible motorist. As I waited for him to do the same so that we could begin the insurance exchange ritual, I watched his car coast right by mine and off into the night – but not before we got one good, long look at each other. We locked eyes in that moment as he passed me by and everything seemed to move in slow motion. His wild eyes revealed his intensions and his wiry, unkempt beard told the story of a man that has no regard for common decency and acceptable behavior in civil society. If I’m not going to shave this beard and get a job, his eyes were telling me, then I sure as hell ain’t stopping for you.
My encounter with this stranger didn’t lead me into a chaotic spiral of mutual destruction like the characters in Changing Lanes, but it did make me feel the most intense hatred for a complete stranger in that brief moment – and all I suffered was a few scrapes to my car. Samuel L. Jackson has lost his shit for far less, and now he’s fighting for his kids. It’s ten years later, folks. Let’s re-view this thing.
I saw Changing Lanes exactly ten years ago at its Los Angeles premier at The Bruin Theatre. I remember enjoying it very much and for a movie that’s ten years old, I remember it pretty vividly, despite having not thought about it since its release. I remember Samuel L. Jackson channeling his trademark anger into a more subtle, pitiable character. I remember Ben Affleck wearing a suit and being a huge asshole while questioning the moral implications of his own disgusting behavior, then doing it anyway.
I also remember being disappointed by the ending. After a two-hour dance full of twists and escalating stakes, the conclusion seemed to be real cop-out, Hollywood feel-good nonsense that undermined what the director had spent the entirety of the movie doing. That may be why I haven’t bothered revising this movie since. I’m curious to see if my opinion about it will change upon this viewing.
The first thing I noted about Changing Lanes this time around is that it’s shot very well. The movie has a gray, rainy palette that sets the mood appropriately. This is a dark drama that explores the gray area of moral ambiguity, so I appreciate that the setting and the visuals reflect that.
The second thing I noted, and that kept jumping out at me constantly, is that people say really dumb things sometimes. Ben Affleck remarks that he made a bonus that “could have paid for two hundred pianos.” Who measures wealth in units of piano? Or how about this mouthful by Amanda Peet’s character: “It would be hypocritical to leave a man for cheating at home when the expense of life she enjoyed was paid for by a man whose job was based on finding ways to cheat.” That might be one of the most poorly-written sentences I’ve ever heard on film. One last gem: “I looked at a lot of cities and Portland… has thousands of nice dull, bearded guys. And I thought guys like this, just… guys. I could find one.”
I’d say this is a pretty well-written movie overall, so when a character blurted out a line like that, it really took me out of the moment. If a line wasn’t written awkwardly, then it was delivered awkwardly by Academy Award-winner Ben Affleck. (I almost choked on my beer when the trailer reminded me that this guy has an Oscar – then I remembered that it was for writing, not acting.) I don’t like to jump on the Affleck-hating band wagon, but I’m also not going to pretend that this guy’s performance didn’t bother me. I’m no actor myself, and he’s alright at times, but I think that may be the worst thing about him – he’s just good enough that they keep putting him in movies, but he’s just bad enough that you notice. Most people aren’t paid millions of dollars to do a job unless they’re the very best at it, though – so let’s just say this guy is overpaid, and leave it at that.
Samuel L. Jackson does a great job as the broken family man, though. As we all know, Samuel L. Jackson’s strength is not playing subtle, understated characters. His signature as an actor is his intensity, and he is at his best when his motherfuckin’ character is screaming his motherfuckin’ lines. Despite playing a down-on-his-luck, recovering alcoholic that’s trying to prove that he can be a good father to his children, he still manages to find the time to hurl a computer monitor at a bank window and beat two men with a payphone handset. My theory is that this was done in order to demonstrate that he has had a long history of unstable behavior, leading to a realization at the end that Ben Affleck isn’t to blame for his manic behavior during the course of their duel. When he realizes this, he can forgive Ben Affleck and let his children go.
However, I can’t help but cringe when he does something violent, because it plays so easily into the “angry black man” stereotype. He’s just so soft-spoken and seemingly-humble the rest of the time – but when he gets angry, people get hurt and office equipment goes flying. I mean, Ben Affleck is pushed to his limits in this movie, too; but you don’t see him hurling computer monitors at things.
Changing Lanes tells two stories and features two protagonists. This is not easy to do, but it’s executed well and their stories intertwine seamlessly. You can sympathize with both characters, because they both want to do the right thing, but under their circumstances, you can completely understand why they would absolutely hate the other guy. While they’re both extremely flawed, neither is a villain, but their choices end up hurting the other and leading to more misery for themselves. All the while, the film has underlying themes of revenge, forgiveness, acceptance, and moral relativism. It’s a layered movie, but it’s unfortunately ten minutes too long.
[Spoilers Ahead] Their epic struggle culminates in Ben Affleck’s office. Samuel Jackson is waiting for him there, with the file that Ben has needed all along to save his career. He has chosen to return the file, despite the fact that Ben has spent the whole day trying to ruin his life. He has accepted his personal flaws and forgiven Ben. Ben, in turn, apologizes and vows to help him get his house back.
They each learned something about themselves. Sam’s character learned that it wasn’t this stranger that caused him to lose his children; it was the years of alcoholism and unstable behavior that led his wife to lose faith in him. Ben’s character learned that it wasn’t this stranger that he was furious at; it was himself, for allowing the company he works for to make him hurt innocent people for financial gain.
What a powerful ending that would have been. Acceptance, forgiveness, sacrifice, and a determination to better themselves. Instead of the movie blacking out there and then, however, the film goes on to feature a scene where Ben Affleck tells off his father-in-law in the most embarrassing way possible. He basically calls his boss and wife’s father a liar and a thief in front of his family, tells him how he’s going to come into the office and do this and that, and then blurts out how he’s “fucking starving.” I would expect more problems for Ben’s character as a result of this encounter with his father-in-law than from everything that happened the previous day with Samuel L. Jackson. He could get fired from his firm, his wife could be furious with him for insulting his father… what happens next? Then he goes to Sam Jackson’s ex-wife’s apartment and magically convinces her not to leave the state, even though she just explained in great detail the previous day through his jail bars why she would never allow her children to see their father again. What magical words could he have used to make this woman turn down a job in another state and forgive the years of mistrust and erratic behavior that had convinced her to shield her children from this man forever?
Ten years later, and the ending still bothers me. Nevertheless, Changing Lanes is a good movie that I enjoyed watching a second time. I think Rotten Tomatoes Super Reviewer “dannie d” sums it up best in his short, but deeply critical review of Changing Lanes: “decent flick but not that rememberable.” Well said, danny d. Well said.