Behold the powers of Spike Lee to get under people’s skin! By some unaccountable phenomena, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling resembles a Spike Lee movie. It starts with a simple premise: single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) asks police to find her pre-teen son gone missing in 1928 Los Angeles. Then, like Lee, Eastwood piles on extraneous, aggravating subplots: a corrupt police force (“The Gun Squad”) manipulating Christine’s misfortune; her sexist exploitation by both the rabid media and opportunistic radio evangelist Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich); bogus psychiatry practiced by a menacing shrink (Dennis O’Hare) who terrorizes Christine in a mental institution. Plus, Eastwood’s usual film-noir furbelows: His favorite hues are green and darkness. The only red in the entire film is Jolie’s 3-D lipstick.
For these reasons, Changeling isn’t suspenseful: It’s creepy. Lacking the historical veracity of De Palma’s Black Dahlia, its style is a bizarre form of old-school storytelling, mixing masochistic dread with ugly reportage. The opening credit, “A True Story,” is an immediate bad omen. Fact and fiction are tools that Eastwood uses, like Lee, for a shrewd form of demography. Critic Gregory Solman long ago suggested that Eastwood works both sides of the aisle: Jolie plays a pre-feminist martyr surrounded by men who
simultaneously represent conservative repression (the cops) and sentimentality (the Rev.). Eastwood also agitates by throwing in serial-killer episodes that lapse into gruesome pedophilia—including a set of child performances that are the least convincing since Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace.
Also like Lee, Eastwood has a knack for appealing to spurious cultural fears. Changeling (with its sub-Chinatown score) teases the contemporary appetite for dark cynicism. This movie doesn’t celebrate mother-love, but indulges nihilism (“Our protectors have become our brutalizers,” Malkovich warns). Eastwood looks for villainy and then targets villainy. It’s almost devilish: Changeling doesn’t explore post-WWI culture, yet J. Michael Straczynski’s blatantly contrived script distorts pre-Depression-era gloom into timely horror. The psycho ward alibi—“Extraordinary steps were necessary”—is Eastwood’s nod toward Gitmo.
You’d have to be a tabloid addict—or on Eastwood’s sycophantic payroll—to fall for Jolie’s lousy lead performance. At first she evokes the emotional purity of silent-movie icons like Gish and Sibirskaya: Employed as a telephone company supervisor, Christine dutifully roller skates along a bank of circumscribed female phone operators or hovers over her child with maternal dedication. Then Eastwood puts on the screws and Jolie goes limp: She huddles her shoulders, looks sad-eyed under kohl eye-shadow and droopy hats and speaks in a weak, anguished voice. Refusing to challenge society like Meryl Streep’s memorably intransigent bereaved mother in A Cry in the Dark, Jolie goes for pity.
She makes Christine another of those sentimentalized women who have no family or friends for consul (like Frozen River, Ballast). During the tacked-on serial-killer trial, Christine becomes St. Angelina and Lady Vengeance—Jolie also plays both sides of the aisle. Eastwood-Jolie fans are suckers if they mistake Changeling’s B-movie triteness for richly revived Hollywood classicism. Changeling isn’t just a mess of manipulative attitudes like a Spike Lee film, above all, it’s an extremely unpleasant experience.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Running Time: 140 min.
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