Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Changeling - Good Performances Elevate Eastwood's Latest Film

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Movie Review: Changeling - Good Performances Elevate Eastwood's Latest Film

If I hadn’t been made aware before I saw Clint Eastwood’s Changeling that it was based on a true story, I would have thought it was another fantasy from the fertile imagination of screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). The unlikely story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), and her search for her missing son, is packed with real-life reversals that are truly stranger than fiction. Jolie’s typically fine performance grounds the story as much as anything can. But the film loses its focus as the plot twists pile up. Much of the reason for that lies in the propensity for multiple climaxes in Eastwood’s films. Straczynski conceived the screenplay after months of research into this little-known L.A. crime story. Collins reported her son Walter missing to the L.A. police hours after his disappearance. The overworked and corrupt L.A.P.D. didn’t act until after the customary first 24 hours. After frustrating weeks of searching, they find the boy, reuniting mother and son, except… the boy is not her son. Pleading to the cops about the mistake, police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) denies any error. The last thing the embattled police force needs is another instance of bad publicity. So he tries to convince Mrs. Collins she simply doesn’t recognize her son after the ordeal he’s gone through. She goes to the press armed with proof of the boy’s mistaken identity, leading Capt. Jones to have her secretly committed to a psychopathic ward, promptly silencing her accusations. Eastwood directs the entire cast to fine performances. Jolie is sympathetic as the put-upon Mrs. Collins, but appropriately stubborn in pursuing the truth about her missing son. Half-convinced that she might not be recognizing the boy as her son, she displays equal parts horror and anger at the impostor’s deception when she discovers him to be circumcised after the boy slips in the bathtub and calls out to her. Also strong is Michael Kelly (Broken English) as the honest Detective Ybarra, who indefatigably searches for Walter, and other missing boys who are linked to a dust-bowl farm in the California desert. He brings a noirish touch to the character befitting its period L.A. setting. Jason Butler Harner (The Good Shepherd) is a mixture of twitchy politeness and soulless perversion as the accused serial killer, Gordon Northcott, who may be the sociopath responsible for Walter’s disappearance. John Malkovich as Gustav Briegleb, a reverend who allies himself with Mrs. Collins, Colm Feore (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) as the Police Chief James E. Davis, and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as Mrs. Collins’s fellow hospital patient, Carol Dexter, round out the cast. The film starts running into trouble when the subplots and story reversals start to overwhelm the central story of Walter’s disappearance. For instance, Mrs. Collins’s incarceration and the pre-feminist ramifications connected to it take center stage for a long time. She discovers that other women who have inconveniently spoken out against the police have also been confined to her ward under a provision called Code 12. Then, for a time, the film becomes a neo-noir like tale of a black-hearted man forcing a boy to be an accomplice in child murders, in scenes that are evocative of Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions. Then it’s a courtroom drama, when the police are finally forced to confront their follies. Like in other films by Eastwood, the climax becomes a bit messy. Mystic River comes to mind, where once vigilante justice had been carried out on what may have been the wrong criminal, the film takes an additional 20 to 30 minutes to wrap up. In Changeling, each subplot is allowed to build so grandly, that when they arrive to their respective dramatic payoffs it has a strange effect. That is, each successive climax eclipses the previous one, so that the end of the film starts feeling interminable. Every time you start getting up from your seat, you realize you’re anticipating the finale before it’s arrived. This has the effect of elevating each subplot melodramatically, undercutting the power of the central storyline of a boy’s disappearance. Ultimately, I was disappointed with Eastwood’s melodramatic presentation of a story that is sensational unto itself. Changeling is worth a look for its performances, but it is a deeply flawed film. Changeling is the Centerpiece of the 46th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 9:15 p.m. tonight, and 11:15 a.m. tomorrow, at the Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019, (212) 307-1862 Photo Credit: Tony Rivetti Jr., Property of Universal Studios / Film Society of Lincoln Center

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