November, 2008, Drama

Clint Eastwood’s a unique Hollywood animal; a successful actor of middling talent but maximum audience appeal in his early days on screen,  (principally as a lean, violent gunman in westerns and police procedurals) he’s also quietly fashioned a remarkably successful career as a director/producer and composer of film scores. While some of his efforts behind the camera have been no better than his presence as an actor in them, (Blood Work, True Crime, The Rookie) his more recent films have displayed a highly competent talent willing to tackle difficult themes with considerable dramatic success, (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima) providing audiences with challenging moral themes delivered via compelling storylines and thoughtful performances. His movies are thematically varied and often quite commercially successful. On paper, Eastwood’s latest effort sounds like a sure-fire winner; a stunning and talented leading lady, (Angelina Jolie) a gripping, true story and Eastwood’s patented attention to technical detail in lighting, sound and set design. Unfortunately, the results short of their initial promise.

Changeling traces the efforts of single mom Christine Collins, (Jolie) to locate her 9 year-old son Martin, who disappeared mysteriously from their Los Angles home in the spring of 1928. After months of unflattering publicity about their failure to assist this desperate mother, the city’s police department suddenly announced they’d located him in far-off DeKalb Illinois. But when presented with the youngster at a media-laden reunion, Collins is horrified to discover that the police have delivered the wrong boy. Eager to avoid embarrassment, J.J. Jones, (Jeffery Donovan) the police captain in charge of the case, assures Collins that she’s mistaken and proceeds to subject the distraught mother to a series of indignities culminating in her incarceration in a mental institution on Jones’ unauthorized orders. Only the grim discovery of a serial killer by another police officer coupled with the relentless crusading efforts of Rev. Gustav Briegleb, (John Malkovich) saved Mrs. Collins from life in an urban gulag developed for those identified as “trouble-makers” by corrupt Los Angles authorities. The incident prompted governmental reform and the ultimate punishment of the guilty, but Martin’s whereabouts remain a mystery…

For all the potential of this storyline, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynki’s script is curiously lifeless; villains and heroes abound, but all of them are presented with a superficiality that renders them little more than plot devices. Jolie’s work is especially troubling; this vibrant actress plays Collins’ working-class mom so passively her performance lacks the resolute stubbornness the character requires and Eastwood’s many shots of his star’s normally expressive face suggest the director is aping The Pieta. Jolie’s demeanor heightens this effect; the audience isn’t provided with an anguished mother mourning the loss of her child, but an ethereal, excessively composed saint. When she’s finally encouraged by a fellow inmate to curse at the doctor complicit in her treatment, her profanity seems jarringly out of character - - this from an actress more than capable of the intensity the scene requires. Malkovich provides his crusading minister with far too much stuffiness and Donovan’s wooden performance as the conniving police captain lacks both depth and adequate explanation for his character’s astoundingly bizarre behavior. Only Michael Kelly, as the world-weary cop whose diligence unmasks the horrific work of a serial killer, offers audiences a fully realized performance. 

Miscasting his female lead is only one of Eastwood’s directorial blunders; his typically sparse style, (astutely employed in introducing the serial killer for example) is lost under the burden of extended courtroom scenes inter-cut to follow the murder and corruption trials which grew out of this incident but which unfortunately nearly drag the story to a halt. Eastwood then goes on to include death row and hanging scenes so overwrought and unnecessarily explicit they seem more appropriate for a film like In Cold Blood. The results extend the movie’s already lengthy running time (over 2 hours and 20 minutes) limping to an anticlimactic coda that raises more questions than it answers. Eastwood, usually skillful at displaying crisp asperity, settles instead for sluggish, feel-good exposition.

The credits note that Imagine Entertainment, one of Hollywood’s busiest production companies, helped Eastwood create Changeling. Imagine is the vehicle owned by director Ron Howard and his partner Brain Grazer, who are responsible for movies like Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code and A Beautiful Mind and this film is suffused with the characteristics of those productions. That means it’s handsomely mounted, technically proficient, thoroughly middle-brow in its aesthetic…and slightly dull. 

The verdict? A disappointing turn by a director and actress capable of much better work.  

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