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Depressing ‘Changeling’ may snag awards

POSTED: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/Universal Pictures

Angelina Jolie, left, and Jeffrey Donovan, right, star in "Changeling," which chronicles Jolie's character's fight to find her missing son.

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"Changeling" is one of the award season’s heaviest hitters. Directed by and starring Oscar winners Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie, respectively, it has all the ingredients to put statues on mantles.

But sometimes the right ingredients don’t taste all that great in the finished product.

Single mom Christine Collins (Jolie) returns home from work one evening in 1928 to find her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. She calls the Los Angeles police, who offer no help at all. When the police later begin to work the case, they find nothing until, months later, they return a boy they claim is Walter.

Christine, of course, knows the child is not hers and begins to wage battle with the L.A. police. She receives much help from radio evangelist Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who has made it his mission to uncover the pervasive corruption among the city’s law enforcement. Christine’s plight does just that, and the police inflict one vile ploy after another on her to smear Christine and exalt themselves in the public eye.

Jolie plays the tragic heroine very well (see "Girl, Interrupted" and "A Mighty Heart"), and she carries much of this film. Oscar moments abound. "Changeling" isn’t her best leading role, but she might receive this year’s big award in return for being overlooked in the past.

All the acting, notably a star-making turn for Jason Butler Harner as a serial child killer and Amy Ryan as Christine’s fellow victim of L.A. cops, is outstanding.

The most devastating aspect of "Changeling," though, is that it’s a true story. During Hollywood’s Golden Age — and before every city police department had an internal affairs unit — the depravity of the L.A. police reached legendary status. Collins’ plight is merely one among many stories to be told from this era.

But the story might have been better served by a documentary.

The writer, J. Michael Straczynski, has worked mostly in television, and there are several moments when that background is painfully clear. Straczynski forces melodramatic moments rather than sticking to what’s plausible. At one point, police officers leave Christine alone in a room to confront a man who may have killed her son. She shoves the man against a wall and screams in his face. And we’re supposed to believe this happened?

This is also an oppressively sad movie, which would be OK if it ended up saying something profound. I want to feel a like there’s a payoff for the two hours of emotional drain.

But "Changeling" doesn’t offer much we haven’t covered before. Tragic as it is, we’ve seen many films about parents enduring child abductions and scores of movies about corrupt L.A. cops ("L.A. Confidential," just for starters).

The only things "Changeling" does offer are what we expect: a strong performance from the lead actor and solid work from a veteran director.

Eastwood has directed an amazing string of either very good or great films, and ironically that hot streak may work against him. He has reached a point at which it’s a let down when one of his films is merely "good." In the end, Eastwood tries very hard to play on our emotions, just for the sake of doing so. If you need a good cry, this is your movie. If you’re looking for much more, you will probably be disappointed.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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