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Changeling   C

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan.

Review by Rob Vaux

Generally speaking, there are three basic signs that a movie is shamelessly trolling for awards:

  1. It contains an impassioned courtroom speech of the Jimmy Stewart filibuster variety.
  2. It champions the beloved wisdom of the mentally challenged or insane.
  3. It exhibits a righteous expression of motherhood, as when a female lead screams things like "Give me my son," "Where is my son?" or "My son wants me to have that Oscar."
Changeling uses #3 as its bread and butter (you can base a drinking game around Angelina Jolie's use of "my son," but you'd be unconscious inside 20 minutes), and it dabbles uncomfortably in the remaining two as well. It's a testament to Clint Eastwood's ability as a director that the results are merely mediocre and not the full-bore howler they might have been if, say, producer Ron Howard had taken the helm. Eastwood's strength lies in subtlety, and Changeling's finest moments pay homage to the power of nuance. But when squeezed between 140 minutes of bombastic melodrama, they simply can't compete.

The film's "true story" handle becomes a blanket under which all manner of shameless conceits can be hidden. I don't doubt that the facts of the case are presented accurately, and to be sure, they emerge from the stuff of uncomfortably realistic nightmare. But they also strike such trite and obvious notes that their veracity becomes irrelevant. One fine day in 1928, Los Angeles telephone operator Christine Collins (Jolie) comes home to find her nine-year-old child missing. At first, the police treat the case as an afterthought, but several weeks later, they return with good news: the boy has been found. Only he's not her boy; he's just a boy they say is hers. Her efforts to correct the error launch her into a Kafkaesque horror show as "experts" whom she has never met attest that the child is indeed her son and that her protests to the contrary only prove that she is delusional. Her strongest ally is radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who has targeted a corrupt LAPD and sees her as the way to demand some real reforms.

The circumstances are outlandish, but certainly plausible: to quote the old cliché, you just can't make this stuff up. Eastwood's technical polish lends it further weight with a handsome look at an earlier era. The case itself holds rich potential in a number of different areas: the LAPD's nascent relationship with the press, the way power can often dictate perception, and the historic ability to classify women as emotionally unstable whenever they express an inconvenient point of view, just to name a few.

And yet, despite such a bounty, Changeling invariably favors simplicity over proper development. It has no interest in leading us deeper inside its questions. It simply tells us who is on which side: sinister police (save one good-hearted joe) and their odious enablers arrayed against the angelic Collins and her stalwart supporters. She is eventually incarcerated in a mental institution, where she finds inner strength thanks to a few fellow inmates (embodying sign #2, above). Briegleb becomes her tireless champion, to the point of hiring L.A.'s best attorney to argue her case before the city council (embodying sign #1). They battle constantly against the venal Chief of Police (Colm Feore) and his hypocritical thugs, along with the doctors and nurses in the booby hatch who bloodlessly torment their charges with electric shock treatments. The emerging details of the Collins boy's abduction only add to the movie's stark black-and-white approach, moving it from genuine social outrage to borderline Republic serial territory.

Even worse, Changeling fails to lend much insight into the root causes of these events. The police acted as they did to cover up for a staggering blunder, but we learn nothing about their reasons for settling on such an outrageous scheme or the rationale that convinced them it would work. Briegleb, too, is denied the chance to develop as a character. The narrative implies that he may be using Collins for his own purposes, but we see few ulterior motives onscreen. Instead, he's simply a noble protector of What Is Right, helping Collins stand up to the civic bullies hounding her and striking a blow against the corruption breeding in Prohibition-era Los Angeles. How much more interesting might he have been if the script had lent him the slightest bit of shading?

Eastwood periodically fights against those overwrought tendencies. He certainly has the discipline to properly conjure Changeling's darkest corners, and some of the quieter sequences rank among its very best. A lovely subplot involving Collins' boss plays out quite effectively, and Amy Ryan delivers some meaty stuff as an incarcerated hooker with a heart of gold. Jolie, for her part, carries the lead role a lot further than anyone has any right to. The woman just knows how to convey inner strength, and can sell it even when forced to repeat line after line ad nauseam. But the film wasn't constructed to accommodate such notions, and while they keep it from falling into unintentional farce, neither can they elevate it to anything worth paying attention to.

Of course, no one ever accused Oscar voters of profound cinematic insight, and in a year as weak as this one, Changeling may still rack up its share of hardware (I'm sure Jolie has her Golden Globe nomination in the bag). But proper drama is more than just screaming at the camera, and everyone involved here certainly knows the difference. Changeling tries to hustle a bill of goods beneath a very impressive pedigree, trusting that the names alone will somehow translate into a worthwhile experience. It might have given its audience the same consideration as its heroine: like her, most of us know a fake when we see one.

Review published 10.26.2008.

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