Monday, December 08, 2008

CHANGELING - plays like a highly polished TV melodrama

I just don't see what's so amazing about the much-hyped new Clint Eastwood flick, CHANGELING. Sure, it's a handsomely designed period piece set in 1920s LA. Sure, Clint Eastwood knows how to light and frame a shot. Sure, Angelina Jolie is convincing as the destraught mother of an abducted child. But frankly, this movie played like one of those afternoon tele-dramas - all mawkish score and glycerine tears. The first hour is dull. Jolie plays Christine Collins as meek and mild - a veritable weeping Madonna. She cries when her son goes missing. She cries when the LAPD - keen for some good publicity - foist another kid on her - forcing her to accept him as her lost son. "He's not my son!" "He's not my son!" The only punctuation: John Malkovich with another irritatingly mannered performance as a political activist and Jeffrey Donovan as a caricatured corrupt cop.

After an hour of this banal suffering we are introduced to the story of what really happened to Walter Collins. Turns out he was abducted by a serial killer. We get two compelling performances from the relative unknowns in the cast. Jonathan Butler Harner is fantastic as the killer, Gordon Northcott - but even he is upstaged by a kid called Eddie Alderson who plays Northcott's nephew and forced accomplice. It's a bravura performance - the real bravura performance of the film - and it's a shame it's getting overlooked in all the hype about Jolie.

It may sound facetious but the problem with CHANGELING is the story. It's too much and not enough at the same time. Even though it IS a true story, it still feels absurd and hammy. I mean, I'm perfectly willing to believe in a venal LAPD, but having policeman be so damn stupid just brings me out of the movie. I was begging for the screenwriter to move away from the real history and add some kind of gray areas to the characterisation because these slimeballs had all the depth of the Wicked Stepmother. It's also too much insofar as it goes on and on and on. The movie has more endings that LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING! Christine Collins wins her tribunal against the LAPD! Then the serial killer is arrested! And there's still a good half hour to go. Enough already! I get that she is condemned to a life without closure - that she chooses that life - and that, to use Eastwood's rather heavy-handed imagery, she will always be imprisoned by the search for her son.

At the same time, the story just isn't enough. Because of all the hype, we all know what the story is when we go into the cinema. Some film-makers are still able to create tension even when we know the outcome. A classic example is Kevin MacDonald's documentary ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, where I was on the edge of my seat during the rescue attempts even though I knew the tragic ending of the Munich Olympics hostage crisis. CHANGELING doesn't attempt to create an air of mystery or tension. Eastwood isn't playing it for the Sommersby moment - is the kid really her son or not? No. He's really interested in how ordinary people get trampled by corrupt institutions. And if that's your game - you'd do far better to check out LA CONFIDENTIAL or CHINATOWN, true stories or not.

CHANGELING played Cannes 2008 and is currently on release in the US, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, the UK, Ireland, Greece, Israel and the Netherlands. It opens on December 19th in Spain and on January 8th in the Czech Republic, Hong KOng, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. It opens on January 15th in Singapore, Denmark and Estonia and on January 22nd in Argentina, Chile and Germany. It opens on January 30th in Norway and Turkey; on February 6th in Brazil and Poland. It opens on January 12th in Hungary and on February 21st in Japan.

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