Eastwood loses his way in ‘Changeling

By By John Fitzgerald

By John Fitzgerald

Clint Eastwood has been in the director’s chair 33 times. He has 10 Academy Award nominations, eight of which are for Best Director or Best Picture. Eastwood has taken home the statuette four times: twice for Best Director and twice for Best Picture (“Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”).

With all that experience and all that academy gold, it’s a complete mystery how the highly anticipated “Changeling” turned out so bad. By the end of 141 minutes, I just didn’t care anymore. This is unfortunate for two reasons. One, we know Eastwood can do much better. Two, the heart-wrenching story deserves so much more. The audience deserves to feel it’s true.

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The film is based on actual events that happened in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) are living an ordinary life until one day Christine gets called into work on her day off. She is the manager at a local telephone routing station where she roller-skates from one employee to the next helping them with difficult customers. Upon returning home from work, Christine quickly learns that her son is missing, only to have the police tell her, “We don’t do anything until the child has been missing 24 hours. Don’t worry Ms. Collins, they always come back.”

After a few months of searching for her child, Christine gets the good news that a 9-year-old boy has been found. The only problem is that when she arrives at the train station to pick up her son, she notices one thing: “That’s not my son!” Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) assures her she must be mistaken, and she agrees to take home a child that is not hers.

The rest of the movie is an extremely long, far-fetched portrayal of how Christine tries to get her real son back. The story seems to wind here, there and everywhere while slowly introducing new characters. A few of the characters deserved much more attention8212;such as the prostitute, played by Amy Ryan8212;and many of the characters should’ve received much less.

Eventually, Christine gets the help of the local crusading Rev. Gustav Briegleb, (John Malkovich) who is out to rid his city of corrupt cops. He is literally there to catch her fall. I read that Eastwood cast Malkovich to work against the grain of his normal type. That’s funny, because the Malkovich in “Changeling” is the same Malkovich I’ve seen in all of his other movies8212;well, minus the church and congregation, of course.

Eastwood stuck to his proven method of economical directing, but the length of the film makes such an approach difficult to follow or even remotely care about. The area where Eastwood really fails is making the almost outlandish story seem real. It is not enough for the audience to know that the story is true8212;we must be shown it’s real. We need to feel it.

Jolie’s otherwise Oscar-worthy performance will be overshadowed by an over-the-top execution that tries too hard to make up for a mind-numbing and seemingly unending film. A few other bright spots were the performances of Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, the drifting child killer, and the exceptional performance of Michael Kelly as the empathetic Detective Lester Ybarra.

Unfortunately for Christine and her son, this film is based on a true story. A child really was taken from his mother, and a corrupt LAPD officer tried to cover the department’s mistakes after returning the wrong one. The tragedy of Eastwood’s portrayal lies in the fact that the screenplay (by J. Michael Straczynski) and directing didn’t even remotely find a way to help the audience believe that it’s true. Not even close.

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