Thursday, February 19, 2009

Changeling



I looked over my other reviews for Clint Eastwood's films, and I find that I bring up the fact that I just can't fall in love with the man's films like everyone else does. I tried to figure out why, and the best answer I can come up with is that I'm almost genuinely sorry; I wish I could will myself to love his films, because they have so much brilliance in them, and I so admire Eastwood's gift for understatement. But, with the exception of Letters From Iwo Jima, everything he's done in the last decade has seemed a little...off to me, like the pieces don't exactly fit into his formula. Perhaps no film embodies that as well as Changeling.

Based on the, amazingly, true story of the kidnapping of Walter Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of 1929, Changeling recreates the story of Christine Collins, a tortured soul who found herself pushed around by the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department for months. Collins, a phone operator, left her nine-year-old son at home one day to go to fill in for an absent . When she returns home, her son is missing. After five months of failed police investigation, Police Chief James Davis announces proudly that they've found the boy. To balance out all the negative criticism, Davis and Captain J.J. Jones stage a press event to reunite parent and child. Christine rushes towards the incoming train, stands shaking with emotion, then stops cold when a boy steps off the train. "That's not my son," she says with a strained whisper.

The film starts to move in strange ways from here, all in the attempt to capture the full horror and plain weirdness of the facts. The problem is, it has to become a new movie every time you get used to the one you've gotten. First it's a kidnapping thriller. Then the police force an impostor on the mother just so they can save face, and it becomes an L.A. Confidential-like indictment of police corruption. When she tries to tell the press about this, the cops throw her into a mental ward, and now we're watching One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest. There's even a horror movie in here. It's just too much and not even Eastwood's minimalism can keep it from getting out of hand.

Not helping things is Angelina Jolie, who has been marvelous and subdued before, but seems to be mugging for an Oscar nod at every turn here (mission accomplished!). Now, I think that people are being perhaps too harsh on Jolie; mugging though she may be, she does have a hell of a time trying to sort out the various moods that the film runs through. When you get right down to it, she's about as understated as she can possibly be. Nevertheless, the film picks up whenever Jolie isn't on screen, and especially when Eastwood gets out of his gussied up version of period-L.A. and rambles around the dusty ranch in Riverside County where a grisly truth is uncovered.

Speaking of L.A., how did Eastwood approve of the look of his characters? Costume designer Deborah Hopper and set designer Adrian Gorton clearly did their research for the times, but it looks like they built sets and shot them the same day with actors wearing costumes that just came out of a sewing machine. When Kurosawa made Seven Samurai, he made his actors, even bit characters and extras, wear their costumes home in order to get them dirty and therefore look real. These sets, these costumes, they aren't lived in; they look like movie sets and movie costumes, and it distracts greatly.

For all its faults, however, the film comes very, very close to entertainment. When J. Michael's Straczyinski's well-researched script click into place, Eastwood roars ahead with certainty. But these moments are far too spaced out in between stretches of boring convention and forced exposition, and it leaves the whole thing feeling whop-sided, and that's discounting the uncomfortable juxtaposition between Eastwood's restraint and the over-the-top nature of the very facts. Nevertheless, apart from Jolie and John Malkovich (who sleepwalks through what was an unnecessary role to begin with), the actors understand that Eastwood films work best when you undersell it.

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