Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008

Changeling: Clint's Cold Case

By David Luhrssen
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Angelina Jolie has climbed a long way up from her days as a Tomb Raider. Nowadays her roles usually demand acting. In Changeling, she plays Christine Collins, a mother whose panic quietly overtakes her denial when her nine-year old son doesn’t run to greet her when she comes home. Her face registers the gathering unease as she calls out his name, going room by empty room before the realization sets in: Walter is gone.

Changeling is closely based on a true story, dateline Los Angeles, 1928. Dressed for the part with brightly rouged cheeks, Jolie leads Christine carefully along the boundaries of a man’s world. She is in an unusual position for a woman of those days—a single mother working as a supervisor at the central telephone exchange. Her status as an independent woman becomes a matter of reproach when her world falls apart.

The heart of the strange story concerns the LAPD’s investigation of her son’s disappearance. Six months after Walter vanished the police produce a boy claiming to be Christine’s son. Only he’s not and the authorities refuse to believe her. She’s accused of being a bad mother, a loose woman. Finally they clap her into a mental asylum to shut her up. It’s dangerous to trifle with the LAPD, a force that strong armed its way into crime rackets and killed people who stood in their way.

The corrupt milieu is the back story behind 1940s film noir and the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown. The Christine Collins case would have been a great Polanski film but was directed instead by Clint Eastwood. Like most of his recent productions, Changeling is a fascinating story trapped in a movie whose loose, baggy structure largely squanders the potential for suspense and mystery.

Changeling falls short of greatness yet the story is compelling enough to hold interest. The martinet captain of detectives running the investigation, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), is rigid as an iron fence post, impatient to get on with it and dismissive of a woman’s ability to think logically. He has science on his side, embodied by psychiatrists whose narrow and preposterous theories buttress Jones’ notion that Christine is delusional. Anticipating the methods of the Soviet Union in future years, the county mental hospital was a repository for inconvenient people. If the sedatives won’t still their tongues, the electro-shock should cure them of the impulse to criticize authority.

One authority figure, however, is on her side. Championing Christine is Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), pastor of a posh WASP congregation who uses his pulpit and radio broadcast to needle the LAPD for their lawlessness. Speaking with the plumy enunciation of an East Coast prep school instructor and dripping with patrician disdain, Briegleb regards the cops as bumpkins to be horsewhipped with pricey lawsuits and judicial writs. Christine is just the cause he was waiting for.

Meanwhile, as Briegleb organizes demonstrations and Capt. Jones hurries to declare unsolved cases closed, an honest and conscientious detective uncovers the lair of a serial killer who preys on prepubescent boys. Was Walter Collins among his victims?

Malkovich was well cast for his brilliant and memorable performance, Jolie is entirely capable if less than sizzling and Eastwood’s depiction of old-time Los Angeles as a low-slung city of bungalows pressed between sea and mountains is well done. And yet for all its promise and many able moments, Changeling is oddly unsatisfying. The plot feels too mechanical, the tone becomes monotonous and cinematic excitement is lacking. For once, reality was more interesting than the movie.

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