|Angelina Jolie stars as a mother searching for her missing son in Clint Eastwood's drama ''Changeling.'' (Tony Rivetti Jr.)|
"Changeling" continues Clint Eastwood's improbable late-career evolution into a women's director. Dirty Harry becomes George Cukor. But this time he goes too far. The close-ups of Angelina Jolie sobbing in "Changeling" consecrate a Hollywood saint -- Our Lady of Perpetually Glamorous Sorrow. Her face (giant red lips; big, ringed eyes; cheekbones you could use as a coat rack) belongs on stained glass as much as it does on the movie screen.
Eastwood's affection for Jolie is as intense and sincere in this film as it was for Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County" and Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby." But rather than lose himself entirely in his star, Eastwood forgoes the intimacy he's so good at generating and attempts to construct a large, complex tale of crime and corruption in 1920s Los Angeles.
The director doesn't appear in "Changeling," but you can sense his care for both his star and the single mother she plays. It's there even as the film breaks apart into about four other films, all of which are as overwrought as Eastwood's "Mystic River," though without the grandiosity.
As in "Mystic River," a missing child is the narrative and moral centerpiece of "Changeling." The film baldly asserts in the opening minute that it is a true story, as opposed to something based on a true story. In March of 1928, Christine Collins (Jolie) is abruptly called in to cover a shift at the phone and telegraph company, where, in roller skates, she patrols the line operators. (Jolie's gliding across the floor and the camera sliding along the chaos at the switchboard are the most savory images in the film.)
To get to work, Christine leaves her 10-year-old son, Walter, alone. When she returns home, he's missing. A few anxious months later, the LAPD says they've found him. Christine hurries to see him arrive at the train station and knows immediately the boy isn't hers. Hilariously, the police captain, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), insists the stress has gotten to her and the boy is, indeed, hers. Why doesn't she take the kid home, he says, for a trial run?
The scenes between Christine and this trial-run son are eerie. Something's wrong. But the boy plays along, and her tentative care-giving turns angry. She tells the press the police gave her the wrong child and implies that they did so intentionally.
The central drama isn't whether Christine is right - Donovan's clenched jaw, alone, is the picture of dastardliness. It's how she suffers because she is. Jones packs her off to a nuthouse, and the baleful "Twilight Zone" scenario goes with her.
What ensues is a Susan Hayward picture - or, if fans of the asylum business in "Girl, Interrupted" are so inclined, an Angelina Jolie picture. Christine resists overmedication and is befriended by fellow wrongly imprisoned inmate Amy Ryan (she may not be crazy but her blond frizz certainly is).
Meanwhile, the script by J. Michael Straczynski demonstrates dutiful research but no central idea, as we're pulled off to a police bust in Vancouver, and to a ranch well east of Los Angeles in Wineville, Calif., where a story of what may have happened to Walter materializes.
Eastwood overcompensates for the movie's meandering with a succession of hysterics - from men, women, and children. There's a police confession that should break your heart, except it's like something out of cheap Frank Capra. You know you're in trouble when John Malkovich, breathing fire as a radio pastor who takes up Christine's cause, is one of the movie's better-behaved participants.
Somewhat stranger is how comfortable Eastwood is framing banal speeches, including one about hope, and staging ghastly coincidences, such as when Jolie faints into the arms of the Malkovich character, who a scene before was somewhere else.
So much cutting between Wineville's arid flatland expanses and the dank cold of the mental hospital make for a parched and chilly film. There are also horror-movie images, courtroom fireworks, electroshock treatments, and a possible bogeyman. But all these parts are too disparate to culminate as a work of tragedy. It's department-store movie drama - "Mysteries? Fifth floor!"
If anything holds "Changeling" together it's the director's distrust of men. A good one is hard to find here. And boys are as bad as grown-ups. Such a contemptuous portrait makes you hunger for more of the sisterly camaraderie we get among the telephone operators and between Jolie and Ryan. But the movie backs away from too many of these occasions.
It would be easier to accept the idea that Eastwood wasn't trying to split this world according to gender if it hadn't already been so unimaginatively cast in terms of good and bad. The police and suspects are silent-movie villains. Christine epitomizes ladylike virtue - only from her heavenward perch could she tell a character to rot in hell, as she does.
Ultimately, Eastwood is stuck. It's as if he wanted to make a great, grand film about a particular Los Angeles nightmare, the way "L.A. Confidential" captured the city as a cauldron of racism and police corruption - a movie that looked simultaneously at the present and the past.
Instead, like the pastor, he takes up Christine's cause, and his righteousness ruins the picture. Before Christine is sent away, Jolie's performance is unexpectedly elegant and delicate. She fills her voice with air and gently covers her mouth, in sadness and shock, with gloved hands - she seems dim with politeness. Even out of skates, she floats through this movie.
But that grace eventually hardens into the fierceness typical of Jolie - hurt her kid, she'll hurt you. So as "Changeling" strains toward its mawkishly optimistic conclusion, the old-fashioned moviemaking that Eastwood settled into doesn't suit either him or his star. It feels like a corny joke.