Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, John Malkovich, Jason Butler Harner, Eddie Alderson, Gattlin Griffith, Devon Conti, Colm Feore, Denis O'Hare, Amy Ryan, Geoff Pierson, Frank Wood, Peter Gerety, John Harrington Bland, Pamela Dunlap, Wendy Worthington, Riki Lindhome, Lily Knight, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Asher Axe, Mary Stein, Reed Birney. Screenplay: J. Michael Straczynski.

Photo © 2008 Universal Pictures/Malpaso Productions
Bad enough that some invisible, malign hand abducts the son of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and that the LAPD, claiming to have found him, flagrantly installs a different boy in Christine's care. Worse that this has apparently happened over and over again to other mothers, though if we hadn't overheard this from Gustav Briegleb, the memorably named pastor pantomimed by John Malkovich, we would never have known or even guessed, and if the LAPD and its associates weren't so thickly cast with dubious actors (Jeffrey Donovan) and with credible actors performing dubiously (Colm Feore, Denis O'Hare, Peter Gerety), all of them twirling invisible mustaches, we might have trouble believing Gustav's reports. You know you've stumbled into an odd film when John Malkovich, so memorably thumbnailed by Libby Gelman-Waxner as an aging drag queen who can't even bother to put on her clothes, emerges as the mouthpiece of local wisdom and conscience-crusading, whose hissy reportage you're apparently supposed to accept on faith.

For the purposes of the audience, the worst thing that happens in Changeling, insulated as we are from the diegetic and allegedly fact-based reality of little boys being chopped up and buried behind somebody's chicken coop, is that writer J. Michael Straczynski and director Clint Eastwood keep abducting their own movie and flagrantly replacing it with a different one. They all star Angelina Jolie, who whoops and weeps pretty steadily across all of them, and who speaks consistently as though she's been studying Julianne Moore in Safe, and her sea-foam outfits and twiggy arms and alabastered skin and impertinent red lipstick are unremitting motifs, so it's tempting to mistake these different movies as one sustained piece. The stature of the movie never quite changes, either. It passes from being a medium-build period drama to a medium-build policier to a medium-build nuthouse exploitation flick to a slightly dwarfish crowds-with-picket-signs domestic epic. So pushing that movie up against the height chart you've penciled onto the doorjamb in your hallway won't expose any huge discrepancies, except insofar as the film is notably more stunted than the Oscar-magnet chef d'oeuvre that the ads and the production design would love to imply: trolley cars! roller skates! Hey, Angelina, throw an antique plate at the wall!

Drop as many false clues as you like, but a mother always knows. So, incidentally, does a cinephile, and if we stand back and watch Changeling behave for a while, we notice how its governing personality and even its favorite games keep switching. Phase One: observe the mother-son bond, as only a fatherless screen family and a world-famous nurturer-provider can render it. In this movie, Angelina Jolie appears as Jennifer Connelly, a smart woman who loves so moonishly you just know the film is going to hurt her for it; there's also a sidedish of Angelina Jolie as Jane Wyman (outrageous, seizure-inducing thought), conscripted by a culture and a work environment that honor her competence but will never offer her glory or release, much less sanction her autonomous happiness. Phase Two: Angelina Jolie as Joan Fontaine, tremulous and disabused once her world stops working and no one is interested in setting it right. The theatrically staged "reunion" scene between Jolie and the son who isn't her son is a nervy narrative moment; I'm not sure how it could be otherwise, but it's also the moment where Jolie's approach to the character and Eastwood's notorious, print-the-first-take shooting style reveal themselves, however handsome and vivid, to have too narrow a grip on this flawed, unruly screenplay. I understand personal timidity, velvet-glove thuggery, and social edicts against speaking truth to power, but Christine just doesn't seem upset enough about the boy's charade or about the brisk choreography by which the LAPD hijacks Christine into her own public silencing. Jolie decides that Christine knows right away that she's being lied to, and she plays key scenes that way, but then she plays others like a dormouse being smothered by her era. The potboiler register of the picture or the slightest whiff of maternal ambivalence in the character might warrant a bit more hesitation or hedgy self-criticism (how can I be sure I'm right?), and the melodramatic textures might suggest that if Christine does see right through this ruse, she'd look withered (but accepting?) at the connivery of it all. Life suggests that Christine might go ballistic. The 1920s drew a narrow parameter around female self-expression, but give a mom the wrong kid, and I think the results probably tend toward the transhistorical. And if not, the mitigating factors need to be sharper, harsher, and more subtly staged than this. Also, part of why Changeling is so long is that Straczynski always thinks he has to write two scenes, one where Christine loses it and a follow-up where she apologizes—sometimes, to be fair, these are consecutive acts within rather long scenes—instead of writing scenes, and instead of Eastwood directing them, and instead of Jolie playing them such that these torrents of anger and despair and regret are jumbled, confusing, polychromatic.

But we're on to Phase Three: Angelina Jolie as Olivia de Havilland, in the slammer with the kooks. Or better, Angelina Jolie as Winona Ryder, and Amy Ryan as Angelina Jolie, while cinematographer Tom Stern keeps thwacking all the actors with his customary planks of absolute darkness and with harsh, contracted spots of limestone white. In Million Dollar Baby, Stern's under-lighting felt resonant, philosophical, because it represented an almost totalizing void: take boxing away from Maggie or this custodial closet away from Scrap or these autistic self-delusions away from Danger and they fall off into nothingness. They've got nothing else. They don't even think about anything else. But the topography, literal and emotional, of Changeling is so different: the horror is that Christine was comfy in her tiny corral, but it turns out there's a whole city around her, structures upon structures, bureaucracies upon hegemonies, and they're all out to get her, and the other tiny people. Turn the corner and you find yourself not in the void, but in the asylum, the cloister, the jail. In this context, Tom Stern's blackness is a flat, obvious symbol of Bad (Christine's world is so dark!), but it obscures a world that Christine is actually seeing for the first time. Maybe we should see it, too? Then again, Stern may be helping to gloss the shortcomings of production designer James Murakami, a newbie on the Eastwood team, who doesn't quite convince us of Christine's two-bedroom house or of that street corner outside the switchboard office, or of the ranch where everything, well everything is just awful. You don't want to be thinking about the set when you visit that ranch, and nor do you want the buildup to your arrival to be ruined and vulgarized by a cheating insert-shot of a shotgun in a pickup truck; take out that one moment, and look at what a fantastic, unsettled roadside scene you suddenly have, leading to a much more mysterious follow-up. For these reasons, but also for purely graphic ones, I couldn't quite reconcile myself to the sight or the emotional claims of the dusty, rural compound. Too much detail, too little sleekness for melodramatic or postmodern abstraction, but not enough detail for full-fledged period realism. Like almost everything else in Changeling, a little too hot and a little too cold.

Nevertheless, it's a pivotal location for Phase Four of Changeling (are you keeping up?), which finds Angelina Jolie at the craft service table, or off on a UNICEF publicity tour, or anywhere except in this movie. Straczynski and Eastwood get interested while she's gone in a parallel investigation propelled by an uneasy detective (Michael Kelly), who arrests and then interrogates the best of the child actors in the movie, even though none of them seem to have bathed in the attentive glow of a truly understanding director. For a guy who keeps making movies about stranded, terrorized, or disconsolate children (A Perfect World, Mystic River...), Eastwood never seems particularly in tune with the kids that he casts. He likes them best when they're trying to be miniature adults, like Eddie Alderson is here, or like that tough little blond kid who grew into Sean Penn in Mystic. Perhaps recognizing that Changeling wasn't sparking to the problem of municipal chauvinism, nor is it brash enough to really have fun with the Snake Pit interlude, Eastwood casts his lot for a while with Detective Lester and a scared, precocious tyke played by Alderson, directing him to flip some photographs on the table with a lethargic deliberation that speaks more to Sisyphusean fatigue than to a child having the life and the the spiritual solace scared out of him.

Malkovich, whose slithery and arrogant ambiguity suddenly seems like one of the most interesting notes in the film, pops back up for Phase Five, where he plays Emma Thompson to Angelina's Daniel Day-Lewis, and everyone gets out of the psych-ward and congregates on various sets of concrete steps, but this is when Changeling feels more production-designed and less soulful than ever. The years pass, Christine gets a promotion, she evinces a savvy affection for Claudette Colbert and for petty-cash gambling, and after the eleventh-hour introduction of yet another solid but effortful child actor, she takes a stab at the sort of gauzy, has-she-lost-her-mind reverie that the cinema's most indefatigable mothers always wander into when their directors aren't sure if they're too addicted to a healing fantasy that's never going to happen or if they're too honorable and radiant for the sick world that subtracted their kids in the first place. It was about this time, well before the long final sequence—the eleventh hour of Changeling turned out in retrospect to be the tenth hour—that I realized I had all along been pining for Gillian Anderson in the role of Christine. Gillian's a gal who fundamentally doesn't believe in things but also maybe believes in things, she's a stalwart and a palpable intellect who isn't the exaggerated font of feeling and pride that Jolie sometimes can't help being, for better and for worse. Gillian also looks great in old-timer outfits and she's a gifted technician, as she proved in The House of Mirth, at navigating the oscillations between static frigidity and quick-onset narrative heat that an offbeat period drama sometimes demands.

Jolie must have made the money people happier, and I do love seeing her back in hard-charging leads even if I question her selection for this one. In any event, she can now write that Eastwood chapter in her inevitable memoir, but it doesn't look like the public's buying, and the hoped-for rave reviews haven't materialized, either. Someone, Brian Grazer probably, must have looked at Changeling on paper and thought, "Juggernaut!" Eastwood must have looked at it and thought, "I can do that one," not noticing or caring that entire half-hours were written in different handwritings by a scripter with an identity crisis, and that he'd only loosely stapled them together. I don't know a single other person who has seen Changeling outside of a festival or a critics screening, so the cover is pretty good. My plan, then, since it only takes Clint Eastwood ten minutes and two coffee breaks to make a movie, and some real gobsmackers have emerged out of that unlikely work ethic, is to abduct Angelina (who has plenty else to do), replace her with Gillian, swap Jack Fisk for James Murakami and Richard LaGravenese for J. Michael Straczynski, turn on some lights, dial down the ones that are burning so hot they're starting to smell sulphurous, and sneak Kim Peirce or Steven Soderbergh or somebody onto the set to work with the kids. Keep Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner, but maybe, you know, give them a few more notes. Find a fantastic liar to be the line producer, and bring the whole thing back to Clint and tell him, No, you haven't filmed this yet! Time to give it a whirl! (Hey, don't embarrass us, just do what we're asking!) It's the first day in the shooting script, Clint! Where do you want the camera mount?

Do you think he'd notice? If we slung a bunch of photographers around the set, even if he did smell something fishy, do you think he'd play along for the sake of appearances? If we plonk this new Changeling in front of the public, would anyone object, or remember the first one, or care enough to call us out? If you're not swallowing this plan, you won't swallow Changeling, either. If you are swallowing this, it's because you already saw Changeling, couldn't swallow it, and wonder as fervently as I do what a couple of rewrites, a few more takes per scene, and a slightly different pool of talent might have wrested from this story. C–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Angelina Jolie
Best Cinematography: Tom Stern
Best Art Direction: James J. Murakami; Gary Fettis

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Angelina Jolie
Best Original Score: Clint Eastwood

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