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CHANGELING (2008) **1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on November 5th, 2008
Posted on November 5th, 2008


If it hadn’t actually happened, many would dismiss this story as unbelievable. “Changling” is a California tragedy that turned into an epic battle for justice during the “Roaring 1920’s.” Few people remember the story that gave the Los Angeles Police Department one of the worst black eyes in its history, but director Clint Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the sci-fi soap opera “Babylon 5”) have resurrected the tale for the silver screen. The resurrection might’ve been successful if they had jettisoned Jolie and reworked the script into a taut thriller.

Single mother and roller skating telephone operator (not a joke!), Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), raises her son, Walter, with loving care in prohibition-era Los Angeles. When she leaves him to take care of a work emergency, she returns to find him missing. Five months later the police arrive at her doorstep to tell her they’ve found her son. Upon laying eyes on the boy, she immediately declares he is not her son. The LAPD, under scrutiny for corruption and incompetence, insist the boy is her son and try to bully her into keeping quiet. When she goes to the press, Police Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) has Collins incarcerated in a mental institution. Anti-LAPD activist and Presbyterian minister, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) tries to free her and expose the truth. Meanwhile, an honorable cop (Michael Kelly) uncovers shocking evidence that might hold a clue to Walter’s disappearance.

Eastwood and writer Straczynski try to weave all of these storylines together but they both miss the mark in tone and focus. The Christine Collins part of the story becomes tedious in the first half of the film with Jolie screaming over and over, “He’s not my son! I want my son! Where is my son? Please find my son!” When the attention shifts elsewhere, the story becomes intense and interesting, but it’s too far removed from the disappointing main story arc. Instead of a film about one of the more interesting details of this epic miscarriage of justice, the filmmakers choose to focus on Jolie doing a lot of screaming. No doubt, Collins’s tragedy and the bizarre cover-up were fascinating and inspiring aspects of the case, but these were by no means the only conflicts in the wake of the true events. This film could’ve been a tough, non-fictional version of “L.A. Confidential” or a thriller about a search for a missing boy. Instead Eastwood chose to focus on Collins and make an over-budgeted “Lifetime Movie of the Week.”

Two of the worst performances come from the leads. Jolie looks ashen, bony and frightening, even before her character loses her son. Caked on eye shadow and smeared lipstick make her more wraith than woman and her incessant screaming crosses the line into overacting. I’m hoping that filmmakers will eventually discover how limited Jolie’s range is and not to cast her in every A-list role she vies for. Jeffrey Donovan is equally lousy as the evil, one-dimensional captain in charge of the Collins case. I’ve praised him in the past, but I couldn’t abide his fake Irish accent and cartoonish villainy. On the opposite end, John Malkovich gives an all too brief and bright performance as Rev. Briegleb. His rants against LAPD corruption and his hero activism give the film a spark of hope it so desperately needs. Character actor Michael Kelly delivers one of the strongest performances as Det. Ybarra. This mean and jaded cop rediscovers his heart when he follows a thin lead and uncovers a connection in a long series of missing children. Kelly often plays cold-hearted bad guys and I find it inspiring that he scored one of the two best male roles in the film.

I found the title, “Changeling,” the most baffling choice made by the filmmakers as it is easily confused with the 1980 horror classic “The Changeling” starring George C. Scott. Originally, some of the online media erroneously reported Eastwood’s film to be a remake of the 1980 original. When that was cleared up, even more sources were under the false impression it was still a supernatural horror film. While the dictionary definition of the word “Changeling” is apt to the film, it still denotes a connotation of supernatural evil and is therefore counterproductive to the marketing of the film. Additionally Eastwood made the mistake of employing himself as the music composer. He conducted a whimsical, jazzy score that in no way serves the dark tone of the film. It might’ve worked for him in “Million Dollar Baby” or maybe even the overblown “Mystic River,” but not here.

Eastwood as a director has given us both Oscar-worthy films (“Unforgiven”) and mediocrity (“Space Cowboys”), and I would categorize this as the latter. It had some moving and powerful moments, but a cringe-worthy performance by Jolie, overlong running time and a lack of tone/focus made this one merely so-so. With Eastwood retiring from acting after the release of his “Gran Torino” in January, we will have to rely on his talent to make entertaining films, rather than marvel at his squinting gaze and gravelly voice. Personally, I’d rather he retired from directing first.

2 and 1/2 out of 5

The trailer below is an accurate representation of the film itself. Count how many times Jolie uses the word “son.” You could make a drinking game out of it…

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