Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Angelina Jolie wonders whether this kid is really hers or a Changeling.
Starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by J. Michael Straczynski. Rated R. Opens Friday in Dallas, Oct. 31 everywhere.
Gone Baby Gone

Angelina Jolie is miscast in Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s misfiring thriller.


All right, it’s time for a reassessment. Angelina Jolie is 33 years old, which makes her younger than Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner, Cameron Diaz, and Amy Adams. Does that surprise you? It certainly gave me pause. Jolie hardly looks prematurely aged, so if she seems older than those actresses I’ve mentioned, it’s because she projects so much intelligence and gravity onscreen. Girlish playfulness has never been her thing. She was never going to make her career headlining poofy romantic comedies and playing women who go shoe-shopping when they get down. (If you want to see how this scenario might have played out, watch her 2002 comedy Life or Something Like It and prepare for a grisly viewing experience.) Jolie was made to wield large-scale firearms and crouch on rooftops and stare down hapless leading men with that “I could break you in half if I wanted” glower. She’s so effortlessly authoritative that she can play a goddess without skipping a beat (Beowulf). She can even be funny under carefully controlled circumstances (Mr. & Mrs. Smith). Hollywood is notoriously unkind to actresses who are past 40, but they usually find a use for formidably ballsy boss ladies. Somehow I don’t think Jolie will be hard up for roles when she hits middle age.
Her toughness comes with a price, though, which you can see in Clint Eastwood’s crime thriller Changeling. She plays a woman who starts out as a polite, soft-spoken single mother who goes through the ordeal of a missing kid and emerges distilled into an essence of inner strength and courage. Another actress might have made this into a remarkable transformation, but with Jolie in the role, there’s never any doubt as to where the character’s going. There was a point in the late 1990s when she could convey tremulous vulnerability through her exterior, especially in the 1998 TV movie Gia. That’s what made her a star. Now, that façade has hardened into an impenetrable shell. That’s a problem when it comes to the early scenes of this movie that have her begging a string of authority figures for favors and wailing over her lost boy. Much as she did in The Good Shepherd, Jolie looks amateurish and out of her depth trying to portray conventional female suffering, and it makes this movie not just a failure but something of an embarrassment.
The film is based on facts surrounding the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of 1928. Jolie plays Christine Collins, who supports her 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), by working as a supervisor of telephone switchboard operators. One day she comes home from work and Walter isn’t there. Five agonizing months later, the L.A. Police Department announces they’ve found Walter and deliver him to her. The joy of the reunion is extinguished when the boy (Devon Conti) is produced and Christine immediately says he’s not her son, confirming the fact when she takes the boy home and finds him to be three inches shorter than Walter. The police and their medical experts continue to insist that the boy is Walter, as does the boy himself. This Kafkaesque scenario is worthy of a horror flick, and the movie lives up to that in a few isolated moments, most notably when the new boy stiffly tells Christine, “Good night, Mother.”
Unfortunately, most of the horrors here are of a much duller stripe. Christine confronts a series of cardboard villains at the LAPD, most notably a piggish captain (Jeffrey Donovan) who responds to her protests by questioning her fitness to be a mother. In time, the police commit her to the psych ward at L.A. County General, where she’s pumped full of medications and at one very uncomfortable point undergoes a forced gynecological exam. All the characters here are reduced to evil cowards and saintly heroes. Foremost among the latter is John Malkovich as the Presbyterian minister who takes up Christine’s cause in his crusade against police corruption. Their confrontations are peppered with cheap applause lines, and the black-and-white nature of this drama becomes wearying.
To make things worse, Eastwood’s directorial touch has deserted him again. Much of Changeling takes place in the 10 days of Christine’s confinement in the psych ward, but there’s little sense of time in this sluggishly paced 130-minute film. The director switches clumsily between Christine’s plight and the law’s pursuit of serial child murderer Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner, giving the best performance here) into whose hands Walter may have fallen. The two plotlines merge in a nicely done scene where Christine visits Northcott in prison and tries to get the truth out of him, only to find that the condemned man is too slippery to give her any satisfaction, even under a death sentence. The film briefly flickers to life here, but it’s too late to save what’s come before. If Eastwood had cast Jolie as the lead in Million Dollar Baby, it would have worked smashingly. This material, however, is fatally mismatched with its director and star.

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