06 November 2008

At the movies: Changeling.

For years, the quintessential Angelina Jolie performance was in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; an interesting but somewhat inert film that exploded into Technicolor life anytime her one-eyed military advisor popped up to unleash an amphibious squadron. With the exception of the tragically underseen A Mighty Heart, she’s been toiling away in character roles with nuclear star wattage ever since her Oscar. So now we get Angelina front-and-center in a hard-hitting melodrama about suffering and persistence, and she’s just marvelous. It’s just a pity that the surrounding film isn’t up to the standard she sets.

Changeling isn’t utterly reprehensible like Absolute Power or The Rookie, nor is it perfunctory like Blood Work. Certainly, in the Clint Eastwood oeuvre, it sits securely above those films. But it’s a mess that feels surprisingly impersonal and atypical, stymied by a script that either lapses all too often into the ridiculous or allows too much ridiculousness from historical record to remain. I have no doubt that there were actual shocking reversals, multiple court cases, mass axe murders, an operatic hanging, and a dramatic jailhouse confrontation. But what we see onscreen doesn’t feel like a movie based on a true story, but rather a true story that seems to be engineered out of the iconography and history of the movies.

The story of the vanished child Walter Collins is a dynamic frame on which to hang the story, but there’s so much else stuffed into the film that it tears itself asunder. Better would have been to focus on the scenes between Jolie’s Christine Collins and the false child foisted upon her by the police. It’s in these three scenes that Changeling achieves the greatness it oh-so-briefly shows, and a leaner, more focused film might have been an emotional juggernaut. But because Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski want to expand the story into a comprehensive portrait of 20s Los Angeles, the focus shifts and falters, and by the time the forcible commitment and quasi-pedophilic ax murders start coming, it’s just simply too late. Fortunately, Eastwood has another film coming later this year, and I’m still more than willing to see anything he puts out. But this isn’t nearly what it could have been. ** ½

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