October 31, 2008


Great news - you passed my adoption height requirement

Grade: D +
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, and Amy Ryan
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

So banal, so cloying is Changeling, about a Prohibition-era mother’s search for her missing son, that the presentation of this true story actually lacks verisimilitude, relegating a would-be period drama to a hackneyed bit of Oscar bait whose trailer would fit well alongside the “Satan’s Alley” mock preview preceding Tropic Thunder.

When Los Angeles telephone operator Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) protests the LAPD returning another boy into her care, claiming it to be her lost son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), the police protect themselves from a PR backlash by branding Collins delusional and involuntarily committing her to a psychiatric facility for women (cue the power-hose shower and electro-shock therapy scenes…). There, she meets Amy Ryan, playing the same basic character Jolie played in Girl, Interrupted. Along the way, everyone gets to yell at the screen (and, presumably, gullible Oscar voters), whether it be Jolie, John Malkovich as Collins’ faith-based benefactor, or Jeffrey Donovan as a corrupt police captain played less like a character living in the 1920s than a caricature in a movie made during the 1930s.

A meandering metaphor for societal decay gussied up as neo-Gothic costume melodrama, the film also amplifies the uncomfortable nihilistic undercurrent throughout director Clint Eastwood’s filmography. Beyond the anti-authoritarianism in Eastwood’s depiction of systemic governmental corruption, he again underscores his preoccupation with death, whether it be incessant graphic flashbacks of the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop child murders or lingering over every reflexive twitch of an executed killer dangling from the gallows.

No one – the police, politicians, the medical establishment, etc. – is spared Eastwood’s ire. Even the admittedly duplicitous young boy posing as Collins’ son (Devon Conti) is outed using cruel and callous methods: the family dentist allows him to writhe in pain while inspecting for distinctive dental features, and a school teacher holds the boy up for class ridicule when he cannot identify Walter’s assigned seat. In Eastwood’s universe, the meting out of justice is just as heavy-handed as the infliction of injustice. If one courtroom scene isn’t enough, let’s try two simultaneously, followed by good ol’ fashioned hanging during which the condemned serenades witnesses with “Silent Night.”

A wraithlike Jolie spends 140 long minutes weeping and intoning endless variations of “I just want my son back,” some set to the same prestige primal scream she shrieked in A Mighty Heart. Jolie possesses the tools to be a terrific actress, but in Eastwood’s minimalist, laissez faire hands, her talents are unhinged and unfocused. Changeling is a story about tragedy, redemption, and hope. Unfortunately, Eastwood fails to translate that compelling story into a compelling film.

Neil Morris

No comments: