“I love children but I don’t think you’re mine, sweetie.”
CHANGELING directed by Clint Eastwood, written by J. Michael Straczynski, with Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan and John Malkovich. A Universal Pictures release. 140 minutes. Opens Friday (October 24). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
Clint eastwood is celebrated as the aging master of American cinema.
His filmography is peppered with solid character dramas and intriguing deconstructions of genre. Hell, I'll even defend Space Cowboys for what it says about growing older in the technological age, not to mention Tommy Lee Jones's performance.
But he's only ever as good as his script, and you can tell when he doesn't quite believe what he's selling. Cases in point: Absolute Power, True Crime, Blood Work, Flags Of Our Fathers. And to that pile of lesser Eastwood we must add Changeling.
Changeling purports to tell the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a Los Angeles single mother whose young son, Walter, disappeared one Saturday afternoon in 1928. Five months later, the LAPD announced the boy had been found in Illinois and returned him to Collins, who immediately realized they'd made a mistake and given her someone else's kid.
It wasn't hard to figure out; the boy she lost was about 3 inches taller than the boy she got back - and he wasn't circumcised, either.
Instead of admitting their error and reopening the search for her son, the image-conscious LAPD tried to dismiss Collins's concerns as female hysteria. Their campaign to discredit Collins landed her in a mental institution for six days before a radio preacher (John Malkovich) succeeded in getting her freed.
That's just the first 90 minutes of Eastwood's stolid, edge-free production, which goes on to fold in two courtroom showdowns and a weirdly artificial coda that's supposed to provide uplift but instead falls entirely flat.
J. Michael Straczynski's insistent script plays like a particularly ambitious TV movie, pushing Jolie from one confrontation with unsympathetic authority figures to another until she finally explodes, reminding us how powerful an actor she can be. It also has the unexpected effect of reminding us how contemporary she is. Her ferocious confidence just doesn't suit the mousy, deferential character she's asked to play here.
And when she does let loose, the moment feels like a calculated Oscar clip rather than a natural expression of her character's rage.
This may sound silly, but I think the film is hobbled right out of the gate by its title. At Cannes its title was the English translation of its French name, The Exchange, which at least gave some sense of the story.
"Changeling" sets us up to expect the dynamic between Christine and not-Walter to drive the story, but Straczynski just uses them as a catalyst for his bigger attack on institutional corruption.
About an hour into this long, long movie, I got the feeling that Eastwood came aboard to tell Christine Collins's story and found himself stuck at the helm of a movie that was about as concerned with her kid as the LAPD.