Monday, November 3, 2008
By Elise Nakhnikian
A good story badly told, Changeling keeps digging its elbow into our ribs to drive home its message, like a drunken joker who wants to make sure you got the punch line.
This is one of those films that tries to evoke the past by mimicking the look and feel of an old movie. We hop from one sensationalistic genre to the next, opening in a sentimental, sepia-toned idyll as a devoted single mother, Christine Collins (Anjelina Jolie), coos over her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). It’s 1928 LA, and everything’s being shot through that gold-toned nostalgia lens – though dark tones and muted colors hint at trouble to come.
Then Walter disappears and we switch to the face-swallowing shadows and inky blacks of film noir as the corrupt LAPD palms off a strange kid on Christine, insisting that he’s her son so they can declare her case closed. There’s a detour to the medieval horrors of The Snake Pit, when the cops throw our ladylike heroine into the hell of LA Hospital’s Psychopathic Ward after she goes public with their scam. And throughout, there’s the hyper-emotional feel of any one of those Susan Hayward melodramas where a brave, beleaguered woman fights the system with all she’s got.
The facts behind this self-declared “true story” are horrible enough to earn our sympathy without elaboration, and director Clint Eastwood, who has always had a soft spot for underdogs and a hatred of abusers of power, homes in on some powerful moments. It’s hard to watch stony-faced cops, doctors, and other authority figures bully marginalized women (a single mom, a prostitute, a beaten wife) and kids. And the whirlpool of brutal repression that threatens to swallow Christine, erasing not just her testimony but her very existence, is a chilling example of how people can be “disappeared” in a police state.
But time and again, the way the story is told blunts the power of those facts.
It’s partly the Angelina factor. Jolie’s roles fall into two categories. There’s the stunt casting in movies like Alexander, which invite us to sit back and enjoy her extravagant physical gifts, ignoring little things like campy accents or wooden acting. Then there’s the serious stuff like A Mighty Heart, in which she impersonates a regular human being well enough to disappear into the role, reminding us that she really can act. Eastwood is clearly shooting for the latter here, but he misses the mark.
With 1920s red lipstick and dark eye shadow emphasizing her already surreal features, Angelina is distractingly jolie, making her hard to buy as an everyday working mom. We might have gotten past that after the first few minutes, but the film’s broad emotions and tight camera angles function like a blinking Actress At Work sign.
It’s moving when Jolie fights to hold back tears as she waits for the cops to tell her the fate of her child or allows herself a little smile of triumph in the courtroom, but those moments belong to Jolie, not Christine. And when Christine lunges at a scary character who’s withholding vital information about Walter, throwing him up against a wall to demand that he tell her the truth, all I could think of was Jolie’s action heroines. Sure, a middle-class mom in the ’30s might have fantasized about doing something like that, but I doubt that she would have tried it – let alone pulled it off.
Christine’s isolation feels suspect too, likely based more in the melodramatic tradition of a woman alone in a cruel world than in the facts of Collins’ life. Didn’t she have even one friend or relative close enough to attest that the “son” foisted on her by the LAPD was an imposter? The filmmakers seem to take the phrase "single mom" awfully literally; the only witnesses who surface in the movie to back Christine up are Walter’s dentist and grade school teacher.
The main story gets resolved a little too quickly and neatly, the good guys literally applauded and the bad guys all but hissed at, while related subplots drag on too long. Some tangents, including a gory hanging and a stunted subplot about Christine’s shy boss, who wants to date her but can’t break through her obsession with finding her son, feel completely superfluous.
The movie seems to be searching for closure as desperately as its heroine, pushing past three or four possible endings before it finally clocks in at an overlong 2 hours and 20 minutes.
But mostly it’s that elbow in the ribs – the intrusive soundtrack that tells you what to feel; the script that never taps you on the shoulder when it can hit you on the head with a mallet – that made me care less than I should have about Christine’s plight. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski has worked mainly in comic books and sci-fi TV, and he brings that sensibility to this script.
Take the climactic scene where a reverend who is championing Christine’s cause strides into the psych ward to demand her release. Cut to Christine struggling as she’s strapped to the punitive electroshock table. Cut to the reverend shoving aside the evil head nurse. Then to an orderly’s hand reaching out to throw the switch. “Oh no, they wouldn’t,” I prayed of Eastwood and Straczynski.
Cue music as a nurse bursts in on Christine’s tormentors in the nick of time, shouting that they must stop.
Oh yes, they would.