Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Changeling

Some true stories are so incredible they feel like fiction, and the mysterious tale of Christine Collins is as incredible as they come. In 1928, she left her nine year-old son Walter home alone when unexpectedly called into work, and when she returned a few hours later, the boy had disappeared. During a police search that lasted for over five months, Christine never gave up on her son, believing the boy was still alive somewhere, and her faith was rewarded when the LAPD announced they finally located young Walter. Now, here's where things start to get a little strange. At the reunion – organised to much fanfare by a police department desperate for positive publicity – Christine announced that the boy she had been presented with was not Walter. Fearing embarrassment, the police put her reaction down to shock and the changes Walter had gone through while undergoing his traumatic experience, and they finally persuaded her to take this boy home. When she continued to insist that the boy was not her son, and demanded that the LAPD continue to search for a boy they claimed had already been found, Captain JJ Jones had her committed to a mental asylum.

It's astonishing stuff, and it should be an open goal for any filmmakers worth their salt, so how on earth does Changeling get it so wrong? The failure is even more perplexing when you consider this is a Clint Eastwood film, a man who is currently going through one of the most remarkably prolific late blooms imaginable. His last picture was the ambitious and impressive Letters From Iwo Jima, a film that dared to explore beyond the confines of the Hollywood war film formula, but Changeling, in stark contrast, is clichéd and perfunctory from its opening moments. Those early scenes settle us into the daily routine of Christine (Angelina Jolie), the distractingly glamorous single mother who packs young Walter off to school before riding the bus to the telephone exchange, where she works as a supervisor. This initial section gives us plenty of time to admire the exquisite costume design and period details (such as the rollerskates and hands-free kit Christine wears at the office), but it all feels disappointingly rote, as if Eastwood is simply keen to get through the requisite preliminaries before getting down to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, Eastwood never quite rouses himself out of this early funk, and Changeling is as sluggish a film as he has ever directed. J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay ploughs through the basic points of Christine's story without ever illuminating the horror of it, and the film fails to generate the drama one would expect this tale to come loaded with. Despite adhering closely to the real events of this case, a lot of Changeling rings false because the screenplay hasn't put enough effort into explaining how many of these bizarre events took place; the film skims over the tiny but important linking details that would help mould it into a much fuller piece of work. With the script refusing to delve under the story's surface, much of the picture rests on Jolie's slender shoulders, but as valiantly as she tries, she can't provide the underwritten central role with the depth required to keep Changeling's engine running, she simply doesn't have enough notes to play. Jolie practically overflows with emotion, but her performance is exhausting rather than affecting, and her character barely undergoes any development in the process. There are only so many variations one can put on the line "I want my son back!" before it starts to get old.

Of course, as the wronged mother, we are expected to root for Christine Collins, but Eastwood and Straczynski can't resist stacking the deck in her favour anyway. She is painted as an almost saintly figure, whereas the authority figures she comes up against (Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore's arrogant cops, Denis O'Hare's sadistic asylum chief) are caricatures seemingly designed to elicit boos from the audience when they appear. Christine does get help from her own white knight, a crusading pastor named Gustav Briegleb who is played by John Malkovich (all Malkovich roles should have names like Gustav Briegleb), but he's not much of a character either. He sidles primly and unmemorably around Christine offering words of support, before rescuing her from the mental hospital she has been confined in. He turns up, you've guessed it, seconds before she is about to undergo electric shock treatment.

The asylum sequence is where Changeling finally falls apart, and it's where you begin to notice how hackneyed Eastwood's direction is. The hospital is full of frazzle-haired, dribbling old ladies aimlessly wandering around under the gaze of stern-faced matrons, while one tart with a heart (Amy Ryan, wasted) reaches out to the scared Christine and takes her under her wing. It all feels dully familiar, and the director keeps resorting to predictable visual tricks – the swing of a serial killer's axe is shown in silhouette, a startling plot revelation causes a detective's cigarette ash to fall to the ground in slow motion. Eastwood has rarely been so lax in his handling of a film, his recent work has been based upon the avoidance or subversion of genre clichés, and his ready acceptance of such tired tropes this time around perhaps suggest his heart isn't really in it.

Changeling is also horribly overstretched. After spending some ninety minutes detailing the Christine Collins case, it shifts into new territory later on when the focus moves onto the actual fate of Christine's son. This fresh direction unfortunately brings Jason Butler Harner into the action, as the serial killer behind the disappearance, and his twitchy, over-the-top performance threatens to turn the movie into a cartoon, before it finally climaxes with a duet of equally boring courtroom scenes. How did it turn out this way? This is material that seemed perfectly primed for the kind of morally ambiguous explorations Eastwood has offered us in the past, but Changeling is limp and disappointingly black-and-white. In fact, if it wasn't for the typically shadowy cinematography and the director's own tinkling score, there would be very little to identify this as one of his films at all, and it seems more akin to the work of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, both of whom serve as producers. We expect this kind of shallow, wishy-washy Oscar bait from them, but Clint Eastwood is surely better than that.