Changeling(12/11/2008)

            Many people have hostile reactions to the Academy Awards and their many mistakes, but I’ve always defended them.  They provide a nice summation to a year of film, and more importantly it helps a lot of good “prestige movies” get made every year.  However, one thing I don’t like about them is the effect they can occasionally have on critics when they want to lobby for certain pet films; actually that’s not so bad, but it is a problem when they start lobbying against perfectly decent movies that they don’t want to win.  I frankly suspect that this is what happened with Clint Eastwood recent film Changeling.  In the context of the Cannes Film Festival the film received some pretty good marks, but once it was released in Oscar season critics suddenly turned on it, it currently sits at “rotten” on the tomatometer. 

            Why the sudden change of heart?  Frankly I suspect it was because of the same kind of anti-lobbying I was talking about earlier, that critics are trying to keep the film from getting to much Oscar buzz because they don’t see it at Oscar worthy. Well, they’re right, this shouldn’t win the Oscar.  It’s not very deep, and it’s not very original, but I don’t see what would drive anyone to go so far as to call it bad unless they have completely unreasonable standards.

            Set in 1920s Los Angeles, the film tells the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother working as a calling board operator.  One night she has to leave her son alone for a night so she can work an extra shift, and when she gets home he’s gone.  She runs to the police who are initially uninterested, but eventually they launch an investigation.  After many sleepless nights, Collins is finally called and told that the police have found her son.  She arrives at the train station only to see that the child they have found is not her son.  The police refuse to take no for an answer and assume that the stress of the situation has driven her crazy.  Collins embarks on a quest to right this wrong, but finds herself blocked by a wall of corruption in the LAPD.

            What first strikes the viewer about the film is its beautiful art direction and set design.  The film has a very elaborate period setting; there are dozens of 1920s costumes, cars and streetcars all over the place.  The period L.A. on display here is large and alive, and it’s packed with all sorts of old-timey props, it’s a setting very reminiscent of Curtis Hanson’s excellent L.A. Confidential.  The sets her are almost too good; they’re so detailed that they can sometimes be a distraction.  Surprisingly, this reminded me a lot of another festival favorite, The Wackness.  That film was so obsessively hell bent on reminding people what 1994 was like that it felt sort of false, all those pop culture references wouldn’t have jumped out at those characters in those two hours of life as aggressively as the filmmakers would have you believe.  Like that film, Changeling veers dangerously close to letting obsessive period detail over power the story, especially in the first act.  Eventually though, I settled into the world of the film, and this stopped being a problem.

            Angelina Jolie has had an interesting career in that she’s the only woman in Hollywood who could be called an action star, what with her roles in movies like Tomb Raider and Wanted, but she can also hold her own in prestige pictures.  Male stars frequently do the same, but when actresses do their slumming it’s usually more in the vein of romantic comedies.  Because she so frequently stars in movies that target fourteen year old boys as their key demographic, between that and tabloid stuff it can be easy to not take Jolie seriously, but this is a mistake.  When given good material like this Jolie can be a fine actress.  Here she gives the kind of old school, movie star performance that we don’t see so often anymore, she seems to be channeling someone like Ingrid Bergman or Joan Crawford in her work here.  She has a lot of big emotional scenes with a lot of yelling and crying, a very juicy part for someone looking to show off, on that easily could have been done over the top.  However, Jolie is very good at doing these kinds of big moments without going too far and she usually stops just short of overacting.   

Last year Jolie reestablished her acting chops with the Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart, where she played Marianne Pearle.  Interestingly, her character here is also a woman desperately seeking a missing family member.  The two characters are quite similar, they both possess a great inner strength and their both absolutely determined.  The difference is that this strength emerges in separate environments; one lives today and the other lives in the 1920s, where strength like this in a woman is scoffed at.  If nothing else, Changeling is an excellent portrait of what it was like to be a woman in the bad old days.  When Collins tries desperately to explain the situation to the police she’s dismissed as an irrational woman.  They also try to paint her as some kind of slut, trying to shirk personal responsibility in order to live a swinging single lifestyle.  Eventually the police get to the bottom of the situation simply because they’re more willing to listen to a twelve year old boy as a witness then to a fully grown woman.

The film also has a great supporting cast.  John Malkovich has a really nice turn as Gustav Briegleb, a radio minister who wants to help Collins out as part of his larger campaign against corruption in the LAPD.  Many films have good villains, but this one has two.  Jason Butler Harner plays a psychotic man related to the case, and does so very interestingly, but the antagonist that really leaves an impression is a horrifically corrupt police Captain played by Jeffrey Donovan.  There are also a number of child actors in the film who all perform very well for their ages.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by a drawn out third act complete with multiple false endings.  It felt like Eastwood simply couldn’t decided what moment to end his film on, and he just kept on going through the history of the case and the life of Christine Collins.  Does this ruin the movie? No, not to me anyway.  I’m not the type of person who’s going to let twenty imperfect minutes ruin the preceding two hours of solid cinema.  I’d maybe have more of a problem if this ending material was outright bad, but it’s not, it’s just kind of excessive.

Changeling is a fine piece of old fashioned cinema.  It takes a great yarn, one that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t based on a true story, and tells it very well.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it isn’t any kind of masterpiece.  It is however a solid effort.  I can understand critics not getting to jazzed up about it, but I highly suspect the motive of those who outright dismiss it for minor flaws, especially if they praised last year’s far more muddled film of similar subject matter Gone Baby Gone.  That movie was Mystic River lite.  With Changeling, Eastwood has shown exactly how much better he could have made that film.

*** out of four

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