Since I am about to write about the ending of “Changing Lanes,” stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s a movie worth seeing, but you’re best off not even knowing what type of movie it is. In fact, let me do you a favor: Expect an action-packed two hours as Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson square off in a drama that sprawls across New York City in one last caper that goes unexpectedly wrong. Beautiful women, wise-cracking heroes, great car chases!
That should hold you. And I’ve just done you a favor because the movie has none of that but plays best if you think it does.
So, now that it’s just us who have seen the movie, let’s talk.
Weren’t you pleasantly surprised? For the first twenty minutes I couldn’t even tell what sort of movie it was. Where was it headed? Were we going to track Jackson as he wreaks revenge on snot-nosed Affleck? Were we going to see Affleck push Jackson to the breaking point and then see Jackson pull out a gigantic revolver, start quoting Scripture and drill Affleck right in his average-guy-handsome face? What a thrill not to be able to predict even the general shape of the plot.
And didn’t you think that Affleck was surprisingly not bad? I like Affleck more than most professional reviewers. He’s been ok in ok movies and more than ok in more than ok movies. What more do you want? And I thought in his small role in “Shakespeare in Love” he managed to project himself admirably, filling the screen with the self-confidence of his character, and then unburdening himself of his persona to show us his unguarded heart.
Before getting to the ending, let’s talk a little about Affleck and Jackson, ok? Much as I love Jackson, he isn’t a great actor. He’s versatile and entertaining, but he never so loses himself in a role that you forget that he’s Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in but he’s never made me cry. Nevertheless, “Changing Lanes” shows the difference between Jackson and Affleck, at least at this stage of their careers. Although Jackson isn’t as self-effacing as the greatest actors are, nevertheless he brings depth to the role. Throughout the course of the movie, we come to understand Jackson’s character more and more…as does the character himself. As the layers are peeled back, there is a little shock of recognition at what’s underneath. With a lesser actor, the new revelations would have felt arbitrary. With Affleck, on the other hand, I couldn’t tell if we were learning more about him or if he was being transformed by the day’s events. The writers and director ultimately are responsible, but a greater actor would have insisted on more clarity.
(It must be tough to be Matt Damon’s best buddy since Damon is in Jackson’s class as an actor, IMO.)
Ready to talk about the ending?
The best thing about this movie was that it reversed the polarity of our sympathy while also deepening it. Jackson wins our hearts immediately because he is struggling to do the right thing in his daily life and with his kids. By the end of the movie, we’ve been shocked a few times by his outbreaks of fury. What looks like bad writing – How realistic is it that he would throw a computer monitor against a wall in a bank? Did we really need the cheap thrill of seeing him pommel with a telephone handset some taunting white guys? – turns out to be making the case for why Jackson’s wife wants to move her kids 3,000 miles away. And by the end, Jackson understands this as well. He grows in self-knowledge and gains the wisdom of acceptance. Similarly (but not as effectively), Affleck gets past the overly-simple impulse to confess, instead accepting his father-in-law’s advice to go to Texas, do some good for a few months, and then decide if he’d be better off in jail. The pat ending that makes everything right with a single gesture would have been disappointing in a movie that is interesting precisely because it spends 1.5 hours making a simple moral collision complex.
Fine and dandy.
But then they tacked on three scenes: Affleck reforms his father-in-law, goes to Jackson’s wife’s apartment and says some magic words that we don’t hear, and she reunites with Jackson. In other words, everything we and Jackson spent the length of the movie learning was a lie.
The director’s commentary on the DVD makes for uncomfortable listening when it hits those final scenes. The director never comes out and says “The studio made us add those scenes because audiences found the ending not upbeat enough,” but he says explicitly that he’s not sure that this was the right ending. Not that he “hates” the new ending. I.e., he hates it.
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