It has been so long since Clint Eastwood directed a mediocre movie that the unraveling of Changeling is more shocking than its plot. - This material should be in Eastwood's wheelhouse: an iron-willed woman at its center like Million Dollar Baby, unsavory kidnapping and child abuse like Mystic River, and 1920s details rivaling Flags of Our Fathers for period accuracy. Changeling is also based on a sordid true story, so the audience laughing at times during a screening must be unintended.
This time, Eastwood's methodical sense of storytelling fails him, since J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay barely gets into a plot groove before veering somewhere else. When Changeling does broach themes that must have intrigued the director - city hall corruption, horrifying child peril, subjugation of women in another era - Eastwood does it in ham-fisted fashion.
Except for a finely modulated (although monotonous) performance by Angelina Jolie, Changeling qualifies as premeditated Oscar bait. Eastwood has made award-winning movies, but never seemed to try so hard.
Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles working as a roller-skating telephone bank supervisor to support her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith). One day she comes home from work and Walter is missing. The LAPD, already blemished by charges of corruption and coercion, won't investigate for 24 hours. By then, the worst can be feared.
An apparently happy ending occurs when a boy is located in Illinois after being dumped by a drifter. But when Christine meets him at the train station, she knows he's not Walter. Of course he is, a Los Angeles detective (Jeffrey Donovan) insists while his beleaguered chief (Colm Feore) poses for flattering photos. The audience knows what Walter looked like, so any mystery is muted like the trumpets in Eastwood's overbearing retro-score.
The only person who believes Christine is the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (a dull John Malkovich), a pulpit crusader with vague, personal animosity toward the LAPD. Briegleb pops into the movie when convenient, establishing public distrust of the department or storming into a mental hospital where Christine has been committed to keep her quiet.
It is within that snakepit midsection that Changeling starts to fall apart. We've seen Jolie like this before and better, in Girl, Interrupted and Gia, being hosed down and shock-treated for our sympathies. The crisis ends as swiftly as it began, then we're off to the jarring explanation of what happened to Walter. Splatter flicks aren't Eastwood's style.
Jason Butler Harner, as Changeling's boogeyman, turns in a smarmy performance with an ax-wielding mania that belongs in another movie. He also inspires at least three climaxes too many. Christine Collins can't find her child, and Eastwood can't his footing in a fact-based movie too scatterbrained to believe.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Colm Feore, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Michael Kelly, Eddie Alderson, Gattlin Griffith
Screenplay: J. Michael Straczynski
Rating: R; violence, strong child abuse, profanity, brief nudity
Running time: 140 min.