As he’s aged and moderated his public image, Clint Eastwood has taken to directing movies with a certain unhurried, chivalrous confidence. When it charms, people call it “classical.” Otherwise, maybe the word they’re looking for is “fogyish.” In the clunky, overlong Changeling, a true tale of child abduction, authoritarian corruption and maternal indignation in late-’20s Los Angeles, Eastwood’s stately restraint becomes its own kind of mugging. Instead of indulging and enlivening his inherently sensationalistic material, he dulls it.
Angelina Jolie, tucked neatly into cloche hat and polite composure, is Christine Collins, a hardworking phone-switchboard supervisor and single mom. She’s so hardworking, in fact, that she tends to disappoint her 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), by skimping on his quality time. But Christine adores her boy, and does manage to go over a few things with him that will be important later. For example, her favorite piece of advice: “Never start a fight, but always finish it.”
That motto is important to screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, who first used it in the TV show Babylon 5, which he created, and now makes it the central dramatic challenge of Changeling. When Christine comes home one day to find Walter gone, and later discovers that the cops are, to understate the matter, not helping, she’ll have to take her own advice.
Several agonizing months pass, and then a sketchy-seeming police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) announces that the boy has been found. A press-conference reunion is arranged. The problem, Christine points out, is that the found boy isn’t Walter. The police persuade her to take him home anyway. It doesn’t really work out.
When Christine gets fed up, the captain sends her off to the psych ward, where every single nurse is a variation on Louise Fletcher’s frigid harpy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the sadistic supervising physician (Denis O’Hare) prescribes condescending mind games and compulsory sedatives. That approach has done wonders, which is to say horrors, for Christine’s fellow inmates, but at least one of them is a gold-hearted hooker (Amy Ryan) who clarifies that this is what happens around here when women get too uppity with the cops.
Of course, part of Jolie’s allure is that she was tough to begin with, so watching her step up to toughness is a bit of a bore. But she, also of A Mighty Heart, and Eastwood, also of Mystic River, seem so drawn to dramas of stolen loved ones that they will not be denied our attention here, and that has to count for something. Eastwood pretends to eschew any nostalgia for “a simpler time” by belaboring the point that this particular era was sick with municipal malfeasance. But still he fetishizes the period details—not least the pristinely romanticized motherly nobility of his protagonist, to which Jolie wholeheartedly subscribes by crying her way through most of the movie.
Help comes from John Malkovich as the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, who’s made it his mission to expose the LAPD’s shameful behavior, and becomes increasingly outspoken on the matter as Christine’s situation worsens. Which it does, certainly, with the revelation that a serial killer of children is within their midst.
How gallant of Eastwood to take all this on. As Straczynski unfurls it for him, Changeling becomes a pastiche of period weepy, light horror, police procedural and social protest. Given that scope, you’d think the central characters might have more than one dimension each. Pastor Malkovich, though fun to watch, seems about as plausible as Saint Jolie. Donovan, O’Hare and Ryan do their grim duties thanklessly. In supporting roles, the well-meaning Eastwood has assembled a cast of people who look their parts but aren’t overly familiar—like Jason Butler Harner as the twitchy, grinning kid killer, Michael Kelly as a stoically decent detective and various child actors of widely various talents—and the net effect is generic and forgettable.
As for Changeling’s classicism, well, if no-nonsense cinematic storytelling today means portentous shots of menacing hatchets and crumbling cigarette ashes and characters being startled by the rap of a judge’s gavel, fine. But to top it all off with yet another of Eastwood’s own soporific, melodically benumbing piano-tinkle scores? Charming, not so much.