reporting from the New York Film Festival
I really wanted to love Changeling, the latest Oscar-Bait pic from Clint Eastwood. I find the period of the 20s/30s a fascinating time in American history. I love Angelina Jolie. And yet... Goddamnit. I can't say that I loved the picture or even liked it, really. Clint loyalists might think I had it in for the picture, what with my history of finding Eastwood films indulgently reviewed/awarded in the past, but I was rooting for it early on, even trying to ignore the pleasant but awkward score (That's Clint's doing again, you know how he likes to tinker with themes). Yet once the picture got going I just couldn't find much to root for.
A couple of early scenes at home and at the workplace provide Changeling with interesting period detail and establish Mrs. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) as a self sufficient woman and capable single mother. We learn that her husband fled many years ago leaving her to raise the child alone. She's also a supervisor at work with possible management in her future. All of this, the screenplay (by J Michael Straczynski) reminds us, is taking place in a time in which women were expected to be meek and dependent. Women were supposed to obey the patriarchy without question. This friction between nature (Christine Collins inner character) and nurture (time period specific sexism) is both an ideal setup for and an obstacle to the drama to come. After Christine's son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing she must fight an uphill battle with the patriarchy, excuse me, the LAPD. They're at best incompetent and at worst purely evil in their disregard for her son's well being. They even return to her a boy who is not her son at all. The evil LAPD (they should all be twirling mustaches) even throw poor Christine in an asylum when she won't accept the strange child as her own flesh and blood.
Somewhere buried in the heavily detailed procedural crime drama that Changeling becomes after Christine is locked up, is an interesting story about a woman finding her strength against significant odds in a time long before women's liberation and only a decade after women were granted the right to vote. Unfortunately the movie as directed and scripted works against this potentially thrilling internal drama. The plotting and direction can't decide which kind of movie this is: melodrama, courtroom, serial killer picture, procedural, period epic?
Unfortunately, the casting also gets in the way. Angelina Jolie's screen presence is, as everyone knowns, competent and forceful which is usually a good thing. Unfortunately her largeness somewhat robs Mrs. Collins of the journey from socially conditioned feminine weakness to lioness strength that we need to watch her stumble through. Jolie is technically proficient enough in these "womanly confusion" scenes but they don't feel organic to the actress and there's no surprise or reveal once she starts fighting back. Changeling might have been a better film with a less formidable icon at its center; an actress like, say, Amy Adams, might have had more success forced as she would have been to fight against her own girlishness to find the strength for the character transformation. What's missing in the role is the trained humility and period-specific weakness that Mia Farrow sold so superbly in Changeling's time frame contemporary A Purple Rose of Cairo. We can never doubt that ANGELINA JOLIE (capitals intended) is a woman of fortitude and perseverance. As an actress she's practically a modern superhero.
That said, I've little doubt that Jolie will receive her second Oscar nomination for the role as pundits have been predicting, even in a crowded Best Actress race. Eastwood even throws the Academy a shout out (within the movie's period context of course). Jolie's performance will play exceedingly well in short form, bursting to the seams with "Oscar clip" moments it is: shouting, crying, proclamations for justice --she's especially good in an interview sequence in the insane asylum when you can see her strategizing emotional responses and doubting herself. Clips might be the best way to experience this handsome looking but overlong, overwrought film. The plot is complicated -- it even loses focus on Christine for a surprisingly length of time -- but the picture is not.
In its opening frames Changeling takes us on a welcome trip back in time to the ancient Universal logo and then a black and white shot of Los Angeles. As it nears its subject, mother and son, it gradually imperceptibly turns to color. That's often a neat trick in the movies but with Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood's favored DP) behind the camera it's also not all that much of a transition. Inky blacks and subdued color are favored to such a degree that one wonders why this team, also responsible for the shadowy Million Dollar Baby and the nearly colorless Letters From Iwo Jima haven't just succumbed to their urges and made a true black & white picture. Black and white describes the film's characterizations, too. The film sparks colorfully a bit in the presence of a vivid supporting cast but mostly, like Jolie, they're trading on their screen presence and not the demands of their respective roles. Jason Butler Harner, who understands how to sell both time period and grinning pathology, will impress many in the breakout role of the infamous Gordon Northcott but the only character that isn't instantly easy to pin down as simply Good or Evil is the policeman (played by Michael Kelly) who serves as the bridge between Changeling's two halves. Changeling's title accurately reflects its early creepy child switch and its relentlessly mediocre shift from melodrama to true crime story. A better more disciplined film would have earned that title in a more ambitious way. It's a shame that there's so little real fluidity, few emotional surprises and no transformative character arcs within the sprawling story. C
p.s. Since you want to know about its Oscar chances as much as Clint does --what? He even references to the Oscars in his movie and in an endearing affectionate way -- I'll say this: It's a good bet for Angie, costumes and art direction. The rest will be tougher going. Of the supporting cast only John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner are feasible and they're longshots at best and only in the race if voters go wild for the picture as a whole. The rest Director, Screenplay, technicals, depends on how well Gran Turino is received. If that other Clint pic is Oscarable it'll give voters a reason to pass here and still honor their favorite actor turned director/composer/producer. Which they like to. Current Oscar Predictions -they'll be updated on October 11th.