By the Numbers: April 12

The deadly road games between motorists Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson should propel Changing Lanes straight to the top of this weekend’s box office.

The dark psychological drama, representing a change of pace for Notting Hill director Roger Michell, should fend off a serious challenge from Cameron Diaz‘s romantic comedy, The Sweetest Thing.

In Changing Lanes, a fender bender results in attorney Affleck losing an important court document and Jackson missing a golden opportunity to win back his estranged wife and kids. The two lock horns when Affleck resorts to desperate measures to retrieve the document from Jackson.

The spectacle of an indignant Jackson exchanging blows with a fraught Affleck should allow Changing Lanes to overcome a couple of a bad plot turns and a slew of traffic-halting speeches about the law. Accordingly, Changing Lanes should debut somewhere between the openings of Jackson‘s Rules of Engagement ($15 million) and Deep Blue Sea ($18.6 million).

Changing Lanes also kicks off what could be a banner year for Jackson, who will be seen this summer in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, XXX and Formula 51. Is Jackson trying to replace Gene Hackman as the hardest-working man in Hollywood?

Cameron Diaz showed a willingness to do anything and everything for a laugh–especially when it came to certain bodily fluids–in the unexpected comedy smash There’s Something About Mary. She returns to similar bawdy comic territory with The Sweetest Thing, in which she plays a party girl who flounders at the prospect of wooing the man of her dreams (Thomas Jane).

The Sweetest Thing marks Diaz‘s first solo opportunity to capitalize on the recent success of her ensemble and supporting contributions to Shrek ($267.6 million), Charlie’s Angels ($125.3 million), Vanilla Sky ($100.3 million) and Any Given Sunday ($75.5 million).

Sony must have great faith in Diaz, who pocketed a reported $15 million for The Sweetest Thing. The sight of a carefree Diaz dancing the night away helped turn Charlie’s Angels into a hit, so The Sweetest Thing should have no problem earning back that $15 million in its opening weekend. That would best the $13.7 million debut of There’s Something About Mary, but the Bobby and Peter Farrelly farce had such long legs that it made a total of $176.4 million. The Sweetest Thing should charm its way to $50 million.

After many years of toiling in one James Cameron blockbuster after another, actor Bill Paxton finally tries his hand at calling the shots.

Paxton‘s gothic horror tale Frailty features his U-571 comrade Matthew McConaughey as a man who assists the FBI in the search for a serial killer. Paxton, seen in flashbacks, plays McConaughey‘s character’s murderous father.

Lions Gate didn’t have much luck getting audiences to sample the grisly, but satirical, American Psycho ($15 million), which may explain why the distributor has played around with Frailty‘s release date. Also, Lions Gate is putting Frailty into a modest 1,800 theaters, which could result in a $5 million to $6 million debut. Its long-term prospects seem to hinge more on its excellent reviews than McConaughey‘s questionable box office stature.

Not much can be expected of New Best Friend, which sneaks into about 100 theaters this weekend after spending two years on the shelf. Once known as Mary Jane’s Last Dance, this teen-oriented thriller will doubtless endure the same fate as last year’s woeful Soul Survivors: a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run followed by a quick video release. Still, its cast–Taye Diggs, Dominique Swain, Mia Kirshner and Rachel True–might lure a few people to this tale of a deadly university clique.

Human Nature also debuts this weekend in limited release. The latest warped satire from Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman features Tim Robbins as a behaviorist who abandons studying mice in favor of civilizing the feral Rhys Ifans.

Like Frailty, Human Nature must rely on critical support if it is to overcome its offbeat premise and become an art-house sensation a la Being John Malkovich ($22.8 million).

Two tough women struggled last weekend for box office supremacy, with both emerging victorious.

With $61.8 million through Wednesday, Panic Room is certain to be Jodie Foster‘s first $100 million hit since 1997’s Contact ($100.9 million). The claustrophobic thriller–with Foster thwarting a home invasion–also surpassed the box office totals for Alien 3 ($54.9 million) and The Game ($48.2 million) to become director David Fincher‘s biggest hit bar Seven ($100.1 million). After dropping an acceptable 39 percent in its second weekend, from $30 million to $18.2 million, Panic Room should amass between $11 million and $12 million this weekend.

Ashley Judd‘s High Crimes managed an impressive $14 million opening without the benefit of much pre-release fanfare and has $16.7 million through Wednesday. That’s better than the $13.2 million opening for Kiss the Girls, which first paired Judd with High Crimes co-star Morgan Freeman. However, lousy reviews for this nonsensical courtroom thriller should result in a 50 percent plunge this weekend. High Crimes doesn’t have the smarts or endurance to surpass Kiss the Girls‘ $60.5 million total.

The laughter seemed to stop last weekend despite the arrival of two comedies.

National Lampoon’s Van Wilder–the first theatrical release to bear the comic institution’s moniker since 1995’s disastrous Senior Trip–collected a puny $7.3 million in its first weekend. National Lampoon clearly made the wrong choice in attaching its name to what was once known as Van Wilder: Party Planner.

With only $8.8 million through Wednesday, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder once again proves that no one cares about Tara Reid unless she’s serving up American Pie.

Tim Allen and Rene Russo wanted Big Trouble, and they sure got it in the form of a less-than-explosive $3.5 million debut.

Get Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld‘s latest crime caper opened last weekend after being postponed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Seven months later, audiences still aren’t ready to laugh at a plot that involves a stolen nuclear bomb and the possible military downing of a passenger airplane. Big Trouble has $4.1 million total through Wednesday, with $10 million a possible total.

Big Trouble‘s failure–expected or otherwise–comes as bad news for Allen and Russo. Allen‘s ignored Joe Somebody ($22.7 million) seems like a blockbuster in comparison. Russo now has three flops in a row following last month’s Showtime ($36.3 million) and 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle ($26 million).

A plot to kill a beloved children’s TV entertainer didn’t need much help from Robin Williams. Death to Smoochy dropped out of the Top 10 after just one week. Director Danny DeVito‘s children’s TV satire tumbled 62 percent in its second weekend, going from $4.2 million to $1.6 million. Its total through Sunday: $7.2 million.

Ice Age isn’t cooling off, though. The CGI-animated adventure enjoyed a fourth weekend of $13.5 million, down a mere 25 percent from its third weekend haul of $18.1 million. With $142.4 million through Wednesday, Ice Age continues on its merry path to $180 million.

The Rookie threw a strong second inning, dropping 25 percent from its $16 million debut to $11.7 million. Baseball might not have recovered from the 1994 strike, but the game’s sure reviving Dennis Quaid‘s career.

This stirring biography of Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris could become Quaid‘s biggest solo effort. With $36.6 million through Wednesday, The Rookie will outscore Frequency ($44.9 million) this weekend and may eventually exceed The Parent Trap‘s $66.3 million total. Quaid‘s biggest hits: the ensemble dramas Traffic ($124.1 million) and Any Given Sunday ($75.5 million).

Clockstoppers registered a strong second weekend, eroding by a mere 28 percent, from $10.1 million to $7.2 million. Jonathan Frakes‘ time-bending teen adventure has $23.1 million through Wednesday. Its final destination: $35 million.

Blade 2 will surpass its predecessor’s $70.1 million total on Friday, but it continues to hemorrhage beyond control. Wesley Snipes‘ vampire saga lost 43 percent of its audience in its third weekend, dropping to $7.4 million from $16 million. With $69.2 million through Wednesday, Blade 2 will retreat into the darkness with about $80 million.

The end is near for Mel Gibson‘s We Were Soldiers ($72.2 million through Wednesday), Best Picture Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind ($165.5 million through Wednesday), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ($304.4 million through Tuesday), The Time Machine ($54.7 million through Sunday) and John Q ($70.1 million through Sunday).

Seems the 20th anniversary of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial isn’t too much of a cause for celebration. Steven Spielberg‘s 1982 classic has phoned home $31 million through Tuesday. That’s better than Grease‘s 1998 reissue ($28.3 million), but unimpressive compared with the 2000 return of The Exorcist ($39 million). Let’s not even bring up the 1997 re-release of the Star Wars trilogy.

Still, with a total $430.8 million through Tuesday, Spielberg can take comfort knowing that E.T. will earn enough money this week to supplant Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ($431 million) as the third high-grossing film domestically. At least, that is, until Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones storms theaters this summer.