“Changeling” is the kind of slick picture Hollywood is so good at making.
It looks flawless. Director Clint Eastwood has lovingly re-created 1920s Los Angeles, with charming red trolley cars inching down clean streets. His capable cast, including lookers Angelina Jolie and Jeffrey Donovan, helps resurrect this lost world, one in which men and women wore hats, telephone operators did their job on roller skates and policemen wielded a dangerous authority. The story is a true one — a woman’s fight against corruption in an effort to save her son.
Yes, “Changeling” is a well-made film, but “slick,” not “substantial,” is the word to describe it all.
Miss Jolie is Christine Collins, who comes home one spring day in 1928 to find her 9-year-old son is missing. The single mother had been called in for an extra shift in her job as the supervisor of a gaggle of telephone operators. It’s every mother’s nightmare, and Miss Jolie — a mother of six herself — plays it with just the right combination of heartbreak and histrionics.
The real tragedy, though, comes not from Walter’s disappearance, but his reappearance. When Capt. J.J. Jones (Mr. Donovan) reunites mother and son in a photo-op the beleaguered department badly needs, Christine refuses to play the overjoyed mother. She insists the boy presented to her is not her own. The officer persuades her to take him home, but she doesn’t change her mind — this boy, inches shorter than her son was, is not Walter.
Capt. Jones doesn’t want to admit he might have made a mistake. When patronizing doctors don’t change her mind, he gets Christine carted to the psych ward. She is subjected to cold showers, cavity searches and the threat of electroshock therapy. She doesn’t waver in her belief that the real Walter is still waiting to be saved.
This missing-child tale has plenty of tension — sometimes too much. The film is almost 2½ hours, and one feels Mr. Eastwood enjoyed making his viewers so uncomfortable for so long.
There’s just too much here that’s over the top — lingering, unnecessary shots, for one. (A great shot of a long cigarette ash created by a distracted cop listening to a witness’s incredible story is then amateurishly repeated with the ash dropping in slow motion.) The morally binary screenplay — written by “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski — for another. Every cop here, with one exception, is beastly. Every psych-ward worker is Nurse Ratched on a bad day. Those are the sinners, and there are saints, too, including John Malkovich as an activist preacher.
In real life, Walter disappeared on his way to the movies, where his mother had sent him. In the film, his put-upon mom had to leave him alone when she was called into work. Mr. Straczynski seems unwilling to let real people be real.
The film is kept from melodrama by its fine performances. The supporting actors, including Colm Feore, Michael Kelly and Amy Ryan, without exception are outstanding. Miss Jolie redeems herself here for the disappointing “A Mighty Heart,” and Mr. Donovan, the engaging star of television’s “Burn Notice,” should have a fine film career ahead of him. He manages to make a caricature seem human. In fact, “Changeling” has all the elements of a great human drama except enough of the human.
RATING: R (Some violent and disturbing content, and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by J. Michael Straczynski.
RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes
WEB SITE: changelingmovie.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS