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Movie Review: Changeling

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According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "changeling" is an actual word. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know this; I heard the title of Clint Eastwood's latest film and started imagining a mysterious and otherworldly threat, like something out of a David Lynch movie. The definition is "a child surreptitiously or unintentionally substituted for another," which is what the movie concerns itself with, though the archaic definition–one who is "changeable, fickle"–might better describe the audience's attitude toward the whole affair.

It's 1928, and single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) works as a telephone operator, rolling around the office on roller skates, while raising her young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). Changeling is at its best examining Christine's suburban domesticity. The screenplay by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski's gives Jolie and Griffith some clever, amiable dialogue to establish their mother-son bond. The movie gets off to a nice, unassuming start.

Then Christine comes home one day to find Walter missing, and Changeling suddenly stops worrying about Christine's home life and more about her hysteria. To me, it also becomes something much less interesting, but you may disagree. After a lazy investigation, the LAPD return to Jolie a child who is quite clearly not her own. Police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) gives her a malicious grin and sends her on home with the bastard child.

No one will believe Christine when she says that the boy is not hers, and because of that, the script shies away from any cleverness it had given her, content with letting her scream numerous variations of the line, "THAT'S NOT MY SON!" She screams it so many times, in fact, that she gets thrown into a mental institution, much to the dismay of industrious radio broadcaster Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who rails against the corrupt police force when he's not behind the pulpit. (Scratch that: He does it at the pulpit too.)

The most fascinating part of all this is that it's a true story, and if vintage LA Times articles are to be believed, one which has made it to the screen without much fabrication. We're struck by the dizzying terror of its plausibility: if children can be so easily lost in today's world of Amber Alerts, mobile phones, and the ever-present background noise of cable news, then just imagine how easy it would be to lose a kid in the 1920s. Christine has a phone, sure, but no immediate way to contact her son, and no Internet to pick up her story and run with it. This leaves the good Rev. Briegleb as her only real hope, and even how much he can accomplish is up in the air.

Changeling being the kind of big-name Hollywood Oscar contender it is, he does manage to do something (though how much I'll leave to you). The last act, then, is the obligatory courtroom conclusion, replete with its own psychopath played by Jason Butler Harner in the movie's most riveting and expert performance. He's scary because he's teetering on the brink, and he could fall either way; we're never quite sure which he's leaning toward.

Since it has several intersecting plot lines (Christine's search for Walter, the trial, the LAPD corruption scandal), the movie uses several epilogues to sort them out, falling prey to Return of the King syndrome in that it seems to end about five times before it really ends. But if I'm making the film sound like some sort of huge, sprawling mess, that isn't my intent. It's a fairly by-the-numbers outing, with all of the expected beats and revelations, and proceeds for the most part in an unerringly straight line (when it clumsily diverts for a murder investigation, the audience finds its attention diverted as well). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it prevents the film from having much of an impact besides a curious desire to see how it ends. I guess you could just Google the actual events if it comes to that.

A common criticism of Clint Eastwood's work as of late, probably beginning with 2003's Mystic River, is that in his attempt to play you like a piano, he mashes the keys so hard and forcefully that you end up out of tune. And it's true that Eastwood can't always resist the obvious string-pullers: Sean Penn's hysteria in Mystic River and Hilary Swank's cruel redneck family in Million Dollar Baby both come to mind.

Still, I have to admit that it's been working for me. Both of the aforementioned films had their flaws, as did 2006's Flags of Our Fathers, but you know what? Eastwood is such a stately, classy filmmaker that each one carried more than just a hint of prestige, maybe falling short in the end but doing an excellent job otherwise. With Letters from Iwo Jima, his Japanese-language counterpart to Flags, many agreed he had come close to making his masterpiece.

Then comes Changeling, more manipulative than all of the above, yet with a better story than perhaps any of them. The problem is that movie never builds up enough of an emotional charge for its climactic confrontation to be much of a release. Instead of hitting you like a freight train, Changeling merely slaps you around for a while. When Straczynski likes a character, you can tell because they pop off the screen, like Rev. Briegleb or a tough hooker in the psych ward or, indeed, pre-abduction Christine. But more often than not, what the characters do and say is simply functional, enough to get the job done without angling for something better.

Angelina Jolie impressively plays down her supermodel looks, but the material doesn't give her the chance to stretch like she did in her star-making turn in Girl, Interrupted or her bravura performance in last year's overlooked A Mighty Heart. Her famously large lips coated in bright red lipstick seem cold and garish under the light of cinematographer Tom Stern, who succeeds in making most of the movie seem oddly artificial. A comment on the film's underlying theme of false identity? Nah, that's too clever.

What we end up with is a typical Hollywood melodrama, done with enough workmanlike skill to keep someone's brains turning until the curtain comes up and the credits start to roll. For a lot of movies, that would probably be enough, but for a film with Changeling's talent and pedigree, you'd like to think it would do a little better than average.

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About Arlo J. Wiley