Changeling (2008) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Colm Feore, John Malkovich,
The title “based on a true story” appears in the credits at the opening. It’s vital the audience knows this because “Changeling” would be the most absurd, contrived, and unbelievable films ever made. In 1920’s Los Angeles the child of a single mother who goes missing and is returned to her months later, except it’s not her son. A lengthy fight to find her real son uncovers heinous corruption in the LAPD. Unfortunately, because this is a true story does not make the film less frustrating for its ridiculous implausibility.
The film’s lovely hero is the luscious Angelina Jolie, who looks great in the flappers 20’s outfits. She’s a single mother who works hard as a manager of a telephone operator service. One day she suffers a parents’ worse nightmare, her son is gone, nowhere to be found. Months go by without any trace, until miraculously the police find the boy. But when he’s brought home, it’s not her son. Despite repeated denials and physical evidence to the contrary the police find every excuse to deny Christine’s accusations.
Fearing negative public backlash against this mistake Christine is put into a medical asylum without trial. Meanwhile one of the LAPD officers undercovers the crimes of a heinous serial killer, which may link to Christine’s son. Over time Christine continues to fight the uphill battle against deep-rooted police corruption in order to find closure in her life.
“Changeling” is just too much story for Eastwood and his writer J. Michael Straczynski to provide the depth of character, historical context and understanding of the issues. In order to cover all bases, Eastwood hopscotch's through a series of events with speed. Several dramatic detours take the audience away from the central conflict about mother finding son. A broad three-pronged story is revealed about A) a mother searching for her son, B) a historically significant saga about deep-rooted LAPD police corruption, and C) a story about a heinous child serial killer.
If the grief of losing one’s son and having him replaced by another kid despite the vehement objections to the contrary being ignored were shocking enough, midway through we’re introduced to a story about a man and a young teenager who has chopped up 20 young kids with an axe. And when storyline B) takes over Eastwood is not shy to show us grisy flashbacks to kids getting abducted and chopped up with an axe. It's emotional overkill.
Eastwood, who has shown surprisingly patient attention and carefulness to his recent films, is distracted with these extraneous plot threads. In the final act, he just can’t seem to end the film At one point Christine visits the serial killer in jail. The scene leads to nothing except an unnecessarily long execution scene.
Some performances are decent. Jolie cries and screams “I want my real son” numerous times. It’s authentic and emotional, but once or twice was enough. Eastwood’s characterization of the serial killer is 100% Hollywood artificiality and no more insightful than one of his Dirty Harry pictures. The corrupt cops, again, are nasty and mean, but cardboard stand-ins and token antagonists. Malkovich, as usual, delivers the best performance as a priest who helps Christine fight the battle.
Despite handsome 20’s production design, stunning cinematography, wonderful Eastwood-esque musical tones, and some decent performances, simply put “Changeling” is a frustrating experience because it fails the logic test.
Despite being handed a son which isn’t hers Christine takes him into her home. But never does she ask him directly, who he is, or why he claims to be her son. And though she continues to deny the boy is hers to the police, her only method of rebuttal is repeating over and over again, “he’s not my son”. She never gets a lawyer, or a private investigator, or any other officer of the law. She's resolute but passive. Really quickly (probably within a day or two of this happening) Christine should realize the police have manufactured this rouse. And so, if she really wanted to find her son, she would gotten a lawyer and saved a lot of unnecessary grief.
But, of course, this is based on a true story, but this is where artistic license should turn this unique story into a good movie.