Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich
Jeffrey Donovan, Amy Ryan, Denis O'Hare, Colm Feore
Jason Butler Harner, Michael Kelly
Based on a true story, "Changeling" explores the strange case of Christine Collins (Jolie) a single mother living in Los Angeles whose son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappeared on March 10th 1928. After reporting her case to the Police Department she received notice five months later that her son had been found; upon the reunion she claimed that the child who had come back was not her son.
This led to her being committed into a mental institution by orders from LAPD captain J.J Jones (Donovan) "you're in shock and he's changed" is his reasoning, where she was kept without proper charges, turning Collins' case into a fairly unknown piece of civil rights history that led to severe changes in the police.
Debating whether to concentrate on the struggle of a mother or the uncovering of a historical piece, Clint Eastwood ends with a film that is certainly entertaining but shemfully aimless.
Once again reducing everything to extreme opposites, Eastwood divides his characters between the bad and the good sometimes pushing situations into the territory of selfparody.
When asking for references from people who knew Walter, Christine approaches his former teacher played by Pamela Dunlap who squeezes all of the Judi Dench within her in a few minutes making for a bizarre occasion of actors being too conscious about when to act, while Walter's doppelganger (Devon Conti) would seem more adequate for yet another remake of "The Omen".
In the same way Eastwood grabs the police with the intention of showing us that Rodney King was nothing new and trying hard to ridicule the idea of LA as a city of dreams or angels.
He desperately wants us to root for Christine and most of the things that happen to her feel more like the way to martyrdom, than the account of an actual human being.
Jolie's performance doesn't help either way, her features too exotic for the settings, she tries her best not to pout too much, give sensual looks or abuse her sexual voice leaving us with absolutely nothing.
She is not subtle, she simply is not there. Jolie lets the story happen to Christine as opposed to having her be the driving force of the plot. Approached by a pastor (Malkovich) who wants to make her a heroine, she immediately goes to his office where she just sits and listens while Malkovich chews the scenery, she pretty much gets lost in the decor. When she is in the mental asylum it's as if she's completely forgotten about her missing son and just concentrates on the "insane" experience. And in the final sequence where she needed to muster some of the post-Obama optimism, it seems she just wanted to get it over and done with. This doesn't mean that her performance should've been a that of a big drama queen, but at least of someone who cared about just anything.
Besides she isn't onscreen as much as you'd think she would and this proves that Jolie's most respected, if not respectable, work comes when her director and editor know just when enough is enough.
In the same way Donovan lingers between bad and cartoon villain, Ryan as a fellow asylum inmate is underused even if her character is the only one who for a second seems made out of flesh and blood.
In "Changeling" the conception of acting is that you should repeat the same line three or more times, while raising the tone, changing the enunciation and looking fierce.
Therefore Jolie's performance consists of her repeated versions of "I want my son back", while wearing simply fabulous hats.
And in the technical department the film more than makes up for most of its flaws; the art direction is stunning and very detail oriented (the roller skating in the phone operators' room is a brilliant touch), Tom Stern's cinematography steals the show, it seems that being allowed by Eastwood to photograph things in something other than blue or gray-ish filters paid off superbly and the film presents us with sepias, reds, very noir-ish blacks, some blues and a postcard like view that might be the worthiest thing in the whole movie. Even in the final "Chinatown"-esque scene where Eastwood's odd jazzy score (think "Misty" and a very famous Charles Trenet song from where he obviously drew "inspiration" from) drowns everything, there is a sense of loss becuase of the visuals. With its look he gives the movie a strange sense of nostalgia despite the horrors hidden in the era.
But besides the barely there ensemble what hurts the film the most is a battle between the power of the story and the director's conception.
Eastwood here seems to have some trouble related to misogyny because for most of the film, even when the dialogues, plot and intentions seem to make us root for Christine, the director has a hard time making us feel that; the lines and events seem to make her be the responsible one because of the actress and her director.
When Christine says "I promised Walter I'd take him to the movies" it doesn't work like normal, reasonable guilt, it plays out like the reaction of someone who is a bad mother because she left the house in the first place.
Eastwood's Christine thinks her place should've been at home with her kid, making her feel bad for her career and while Jolie tries to follow instructions, by the end you can't help but feel she comes out looking like a more virginal version of Roxie Hart (a scene where she delights herself with Oscar predictions is nothing short of morbid).
"Everybody knows women are fragile, just emotions, nothing upstairs" says Ryan's character and with that she sums up what seems to be Eastwood's conception as well.
Because while the men aren't written or portrayed any better, it's the women who often look like parodies; an evil nurse comes straight from "Saw" and Christine's passiveness makes it obvious that for Eastwood, Penelope could've never been the heroine in "The Odyssey".
Whenever the film centers on Christine her scenes come off looking as if they don't belong, watch how in a key scene she is rescued by another character just when she's mid-faint. Her sequences are the kind Mary Pickford would've been perfect for.
The men come right out of a Raymond Chandler film adaptation and if you take into account the slight time difference between both currents it's like mixing water and oil.
On one part there's innocence and movie cliché, on the other the darkest of human nature seen in contrast with the law; if you don't find middle ground for them to share (like it's done in "The Night of the Hunter") the movie will be like a tug of war where nobody comes out winning.
Eastwood tries for this and in a trial sequence he decides cross-editing would add up to the tension instead coming off with a mess of perception.
It is in moments like these when the usually detached, sober Eastwood comes off looking as vulgar and sensationalist.