Changeling (United States, 2008)
Clint Eastwood's Changeling falls into a common trap: by trying to do too much, it accomplishes too little. If the film feels overstuffed and poorly focused, that's because the screenplay, credited to Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, attempts to fuse two complex and far-reaching stories into a single movie. The result is that the primary thread, which features Angelina Jolie as a crusading mother, is bogged down by scenes that are only tangentially related to this aspect of the film. Eventually, it becomes clear how the subplot is connected to the main story, but the marriage is far from harmonious. And, while Straczynski should be commended for remaining reasonably true to the historical record, this results in an open-ended conclusion that isn't entirely satisfying.
Changeling pulls the viewer into its world with an impressive opening sequence that announces the time and the place: 1928 Los Angeles. The film looks so good that it's tempting to forgive its missteps solely on the basis of how real everything seems. For a while, despite a slant toward melodrama, little about the story needs forgiveness. It introduces single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a floor manager at the PacTel switchboard, who dotes on her only son, nine-year-old Walter (Gattlin Griffith). She is, by all accounts, a wonderful mother and he is a fine boy. Then, one Saturday, Christine comes home to an empty house. Walter is missing. She goes to the police but they inform her that there's nothing they can do until a 24 hour waiting period expires. Eventually, they begin working the case, but days drag into weeks. Christine's cause is taken up by Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a popular and persuasive radio preacher who rails against the corruption of the Los Angeles police. Then, one day, Christine receives a visit from Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who bears news: Walter has been found. But the reunion, held in front of the press, is not the happy one Christine had hoped for. The boy presented to her by the police is not her son, and the more vocal she becomes about the mistake, the more forcefully the cops push back against her.
Told in parallel with Christine's story is the account of how Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) visits the Northcott Ranch in search of a juvenile who is in the country illegally from Canada. After the boy is taken into custody, he tells a horrifying story about how he and his uncle kidnapped and murdered 20 boys, one of whom may have been Walter Collins. This case would become popularly known as "The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders" and would become one of the most infamous criminal investigations in Southern California during the late 1920s.
The central problem with Changeling is that the lengthy secondary story of Ybarra's investigation and the revelations surrounding the serial killer come across as unnecessary appendages rather than important aspects of the story. Every time the movie strays from Christine and her crusade, the film loses energy. There's enough going on with the main character, who suffers grief at losing her son, goes through a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest phase, and ends up in direct conflict with the police department in a court of a law, that the introduction of a murder investigation muddies the waters. Changeling feels long and cluttered because it is long and cluttered.
To his credit, Eastwood does a good job with Christine's story even though it seems anachronistic even for 1928. (She didn't have any photographs of her son or any friends that would vouch for the falseness of the "replacement?") It reminds us how much things have changed in less than a century. What was a mystery in 1928 would not be a mystery today. Every questionable identity issue raised in Changeling could be solved by DNA testing. Crime isn't what it used to be. The film's central melodrama is presented with flair. Most viewers will be sufficiently engrossed by Christine's story to make the Ybarra scenes unwelcome interruptions.
Angelina Jolie's performance is adequate but far from entrancing. For serious roles, she was more impressive in last year's A Mighty Heart, and her turn in this summer's popcorn action flick, Wanted, represented her as a force of nature. In Changeling, she often seems muted and overpowered by the period clothing and amazing production values. Jolie never puts a personal stamp on Christine. The film's acting standouts come in secondary parts: Jason Butler Harner is a deliciously diabolical and complex serial killer who makes the viewer squirm every time he's on screen, and Geoff Pierson dominates scenes as Christine's high-profile lawyer.
Changeling has the vibe of a "prestige" film that doesn't quite live up to expectations. The film's pedigree is strong, with an Oscar winner at the helm and another Oscar winner in the lead role. The release date suggests that Universal has awards aspirations for the movie. Ultimately, however, the story is where Changeling fails to gain traction. It's not just that there's too much going on, but that much of what's happening has only minimal relevance and detracts from a central story that deserves more attention and screen time. There are also problems with the unresolved ending, although admittedly there's not much the filmmakers could do about that since real life didn't provide the kind of closure that would have concluded Changeling with a note of finality. From a purely visual standpoint, Changeling can stand alongside any of the great stories about Los Angeles during the early decades of the 20th century (Chinatown in particular comes to mind), but that's where the similarities end. When it comes to storytelling, Changeling is strictly mundane.
Changeling (United States, 2008)
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Gattlin Griffith, Devon Conti
Screenplay: J. Michael Straczynski
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Clint Eastwood
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures