3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Screen goddess Angelina Jolie tones down her sultry image and dons a cloche hat for director Clint Eastwood in “Changeling,” a stylish, Depression-era mystery that follows a California single mother as she searches for her missing son and takes on the crooked LAPD. Fact-based, it's a story predominantly well-told by Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist who spent a year digging through archives of the actual case before shelling out his script. From concept to consummation, this period piece reeks of taste. Nevertheless, “Mystic River” or “Million Dollar Baby” it is not. “Changeling” lacks the emotional wallop of Eastwood's other recent films and, sadly, there seems to be only one person to blame for that: the director's leading lady.
Jolie is Christine Collins, a reasonably simple woman living in the Los Angeles suburbs in 1928. She works as the floor supervisor of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and oversees her staff of switchboard operators while gliding around on roller skates. She applies cherry red lipstick on the daily to throw off her muted, bourgeois attire and carries herself as daintily as a doily. Her best – and, apparently, only – friend in the world is her eight-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose height she measures on the kitchen wall and whose father is completely out of the picture.
When Walter vanishes, Christine naturally turns to the police for help but, instead, finds only added grief. After five months without results, the cops – desperate to rebuild their public standing in the face of a whistle-blowing preacher (John Malkovich) who broadcasts their underhanded practices over the radio – produce a child of similar description and declare that it's Walter, found at last. Christine insists there's been a mistake and her non-compliance prompts a sleazy captain (Jeffrey Donnovan) to have her committed to an insane asylum. Subsequently, the quest to find the real Walter coincides with an uphill battle for justice.
Had someone like Kate Winslet or Charlize Theron been cast as Christine, this film would likely be a tour de force. Taut and sharply paced, it's packed with opportunities for searing drama. With Jolie, those opportunities are turned to blunders. There's no denying this woman's priceless contributions to the world of motion pictures (her face alone could launch a thousand breathtaking scenes), but in her more actress-y roles, there's always a type of inescapable hollowness. From “Girl, Interrupted” to “A Mighty Heart” - both of which are more geared to her hard-edged strengths - to this, Jolie's fitful wails of distress tend to thud with an insincerity that's miles away when she's strutting her stuff in something like this past summer's “Wanted.” No matter how hard she tries to bring truth to turbulent moments (yes, I'm talking about the Oscar bait-y, “I want MY son back!” bits from the trailers), it's difficult to get past the notion that she's, well, trying too hard.
With its elements of Nazi-like, psych-ward mistreatment and woman vs. establishment freedom-fighting, “Changeling” conjures up memories of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Norma Rae,” two films that leave you wanting to stand up and cheer. Here, we never get that crowd-pleasing sensation because we can't establish enough of a human connection to the heroine to root for her. There's a clear-cut villain in this movie, played with a Peter Lorre-creepiness by Jason Butler Harner (“The Good Shepherd”), who gets what's coming to him by the end. At one particularly desperate point, I felt more of an emotional link to the bad guy than I ever did to Christine. Harner should be hailed for his talent but there's something wrong with that picture.
“Changeling” warrants a look simply because Eastwood is at the helm. A devout minimalist, the two-time Oscar-winning director embellishes nothing, favoring story and character over bells and whistles (the closest he comes to window dressing here is staging the action through a smoky filter). Even in his 2006 WWII epic, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the beating heart of the film's intimacy resonates much louder than its guns and bombs. Such a stripped-down style needs transcendent lead performances to be fully effective and Eastwood's newest title is his first in years in which that requirement is not fulfilled. He's incapable of making a bad film, and if you want to see a classy piece of work, by all means, get to the theater. But if you want to see Jolie doing what she does best, add “Wanted” to your NetFlix queue.