Changeling
I declare Malkovich Malkovich! Malkovich? Yes, Malkovich!


Golden Mug

2008 GOLDEN MUG NOMINEE:

Best Art Direction (James J. Murakami (Art Direction), Gary Fettis (Set Decoration))


Theatrical Release Date: 10/31/2008
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, John Malkovich, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan

I expect a lot from Clint Eastwood these days. His films, more often than not, exceed the mediocre banality that has dominated American mainstream cinema in the past twenty years. Even with a few missteps (“Flags of Our Fathers“), there are plenty of other examples to the contrary (“Million Dollar Baby”, “Letters from Iwo Jima“, “Unforgiven”). With “Changeling”, my expectations were just about on the mark … and that’s not necessarily a compliment.

Set in the late 1920′s (and continuing into the mid 1930′s), the Los Angeles landscape being presented is full of police corruption and violent crimes in the City of Angels. Brad Pitt’s favorite wife (Angelina Jolie) plays a single mom working as a telephone switchboard supervisor. She works hard to keep a better than average roof over her head and loves her son like just about any other mother loves their son(s). When he goes missing, the film takes a dark turn and not much light should be expected until the audience comes out of the other side.

I obviously don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it would ruin the experience. I do, however, want to make sure and mention that this is far from a casual experience. Tragic events and dastardly deeds will unfold over the course of the film and one should generally be prepared.

The standout elements of the film are the story itself and the production design. Based on a true story, what occurs in L.A. over the span of the picture is a story I’d never heard of before but found quite fascinating. Much of it seems too unbelievable to be true but without doing any Internet research (I’m sure someone will tell me if I’m wrong), I’ll trust that Eastwood didn’t alter too many key facts. I have a lot of misgivings about how a good portion of the story is resolved but if it’s how it happened in real life, I can’t really ask for a rewrite … as much as I want one.

The production design and costume departments won’t be getting criticism from me though because they were superb. Using a mixture of practical and CG effects to set the film back 80 years, Los Angeles didn’t feel phony or weightless, as so often can be the case when shifting time periods on celluloid. All of the props, vehicles and even the lighting effects (since smog wasn’t so much of a concern then) were excellently handled, giving “Changeling” a fantastic backdrop in which to frame its story. The costume department was equally up to the task and I enjoyed seeing the glamour of the late 1920′s, as we’ve become such a casual society since then.

The oddest thing about “Changeling”, because it is an Eastwood directed film, was the inconsistency of the cast. Jolie did a good job but her celebrity, and more often her blank expressions, made it impossible for her to disappear into the character. I will say that she exceeded my expectations … but they weren’t that high to begin with.

Jeffrey Donovan played a captain in the L.A. police force – in charge of the missing children’s department. I am a big fan of his work on TV (“Burn Notice”, “Touching Evil”) and there were glimpses of that excellence here and there. However, his Irish accent dropped in and out more often than your obnoxious in-laws and there was an undeveloped element to his character that could have made him fully three-dimensional – though that wasn’t the point of his involvement and so it was left off the screen.

John Malkovich plays a Protestant preacher who is openly waging a campaign to bring the corrupt police force down. Through radio broadcasts of his sermons and community activism, he attempts to make sure Jolie’s character and the plight of many others in Los Angeles aren’t swept under the rug by the LAPD. He does a nice job here but it’s a role without any real teeth to it. His presence on-screen comes through and helps to establish his authority … but don’t expect another tour-de-force a la “Burn After Reading“.

The highlight of the acting performances comes from Jason Butler Harner. His character is a vile creature, exhibiting all of the worse traits humanity has to offer. His malice is only matched by cowardice and it’s a shame that more screen-time couldn’t have been devoted to fleshing out his back-story to help the audience understand how a “person” like him could have come to be.

Actually, now that a tangent has appeared in my brain and I’m thinking about how often Eastwood seems to cast Morgan Freeman (he’ll also appear in Clint’s upcoming “The Human Factor” as Nelson Mandela), it’s a shame that Eastwood didn’t recast Hillary Swank into the lead role here, as she probably could have given the film that extra nudge towards greatness.

As it stands, the film is compelling and well-written with excellent production design. However, there were only about fifteen seconds of the film where I didn’t realize it was the Great Adopter, Angelina Jolie, up on-screen and I could have done with three or four fewer endings. (Seriously, I don’t know if I’ve seen a case of multiple ending syndrome so bad since “A.I.” or “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”.)

So, as much as it pains me to do so, I’ll have to give “Changeling” just a passing, but solid, 3 out of 5. If you like films about the 1930′s and darker subject material, this is worth a look. However, it isn’t a must-see and could just as easily be seen on TV or DVD when the time comes. Trying to cram so many different storylines into one film just never gave any of them the detail they deserved.

Hopefully, Eastwood’s upcoming “Gran Torino” (set for wide release in January of 2009, perhaps with an L.A./New York release in ate December for awards consideration) will restore my unrealistically high perception of Dirty Harry in the director’s chair. I am feeling lucky.