Kevin's Review: Changeling - Not The Film You Think
by Kevin Powers
October 24, 2008
I think it's safe to say that most expect Clint Eastwood's Changeling to be the next Million Dollar Baby. After all, Eastwood directed both, and instead of Hilary Swank front and center, it's now Angelina Jolie as single mother Christine Collins. Both films maintain a studied focus on the lead heroine and the events that surround her, but that's where the similarities end. While Baby was a delicate, heart-breaking gem made rich by a simple story and amazing performances, Changeling is quite the opposite - sprawling in its scale, with drama that is derived from the story's details, which are largely based on true events. While Changeling can wear the badge of "stranger than fiction" proudly, it's definitely no Million Dollar Baby.
But that's not a bad bar to fall short of, considering the impressiveness of Eastwood's former feature - it won four Oscars, after all. For her spotlight role, no emoting on Jolie's part could dare challenge the heights of drama, turmoil and outrage reached independently by the events of the film. So does this mean Changeling is an amazing movie simply because of its subject matter? Of course not. Saying so would mean that A&E specials should be counted as cinematic masterpieces. While Changeling is a painting with compelling outlines and structure, the coloring between the lines borders on ordinary. It's like walking up to a Van Gogh and discovering that it's actually a lithograph - from a distance it seems wonderful and impressive, but upon examination lacks the depth and texture you expect. Still, Changeling is something you might consider hanging on your wall.
The film begins in late-1920s Los Angeles, wherein Christine Collins' only child, 8-year-old Walter (Gattlin Griffith), mysteriously disappears from their home one weekend. After months pass with no clues, a young boy is discovered a few states over who appears to match Walter's description. He's sent to Los Angeles and is presented to Christine who immediately rejects the boy as not her own. Under intense public pressure and criticism stemming from rampant police corruption, the LAPD is desperate for some positive publicity and convinces Christine to take the boy home "on a trial basis." Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) tells her that the boy has been through great trauma and she's emotional, so her memory and perspective needs time to adjust. A large portion of Changeling surrounds Christine's claims and the LAPD rationalizing her concerns away with absurd explanations - absurd both in content and delivery. Donovan is laughable - literally, the audience was laughing - when he tries to assuage Christine's evidence that the boy she has taken in is three inches shorter and circumcised when her Walter was, in fact, neither. Instead of these scenes having bite and drama, they come across as ridiculous and comical.
One element that did come across as appropriately tortured and dramatic was the performances by Jolie and John Malkovich. Malkovich stars as Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a community activist who helps Christine in her search. Malkvovich does a superb job in the role, probably because his performance is skillfully inconspicuous. Jolie, on the other hand, is a caricature of emotion. To a degree this suits her, considering the content of Changeling, especially when she is thrown into a mental institution (she channels A Girl Interrupted perfectly). Yet while her presentation and Eastwood's rhythm is noteworthy, you may find yourself impatient in the long, calculated scenes that aim to show Jolie release a tear or deliver a stare of mental collapse. We're more interested in what happened to her son and the creation and resolution of this web of deceit, not constantly reading Jolie's face for the next emotional breakdown.
This distraction from Jolie as the anguished mother is also attributable to the film's runtime. At a not unreasonable 2 hours and 35 minutes, Changeling feels more like 4 hours. Just when you think the film is going to end, up pops an accessory scene of turmoil or closure. During the thick of it, as well, you get the feeling that a number of sequences are just plain gratuitous. Eastwood may be trying to imbue fine doses of drama, but it mainly comes across as unnecessary. Changeling is certainly a compelling story, but it's not a great film. Despite Eastwood's measured elements that made Million Dollar Baby exactly that, Changeling is an unbalanced drama that isn't the film we thought it to be.