October 30, 2008

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Changeling (R)
Angelina Jolie dons late 1920s garb, red lipstick and a “for your Oscar consideration” expression in Changeling, a pretty but draggy suspense drama.

Christine Collins (Jolie) is a hard-working single mom supporting her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) by working at the phone company (where she skates around on actual roller skates supervising calls — there are only a handful of scenes about this but I was totally fascinated and now eagerly await some Letters from Iwo Jima-like companion movie all about the phone company in Los Angeles in the 1920s and ’30s). As you know if you’ve seen just one trailer, her son goes missing (when she’s called in to work an extra shift — talk about your working mother guilt) and Christine is beside herself with worry. Not so the LAPD, which declines to do any kind of investigating until he’s gone 24 hours. Eventually, the cops do show up and, of course, days and weeks and months go by without finding poor Walter. Then, presto, several months later, the LAPD finds Walter out in the midwest somewhere. Aren’t you so grateful we’ve treated you so well, Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) says? Well, that 24-hour rule is kinda stupid, Christine starts to say. Nevermind that, Davis says, and he points Christine in the direction of Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) and her returned-home son Walter.

Except, not Walter, as Christine says right away. Capt. Jones smiles and says, sure it’s Walter, and anyway there are a lot of reporters here and the media’s always on our case about our screw-ups so maybe you could just go along with the this-is-Walter story, OK? Christine reluctantly smiles for a picture at the train station but once home, a closer look at some of the boy’s physical characteristics (for example, the observation that he’s some three or four inches shorter than Walter was when last seen) makes her determined to get Jones back to the search for her actual son.

But that boy there is your son, Jones insists; going round and round with her until, as you also know if you’ve seen just one trailer, he eventually gets her committed to a psychiatric facilitiy for not agreeing that the strange boy she’s taking care of is her still-lost son.

Changeling seems to want to tell two stories — the one about Christine Collins and her missing son and one about the corruption and incompetence of the LAPD. The missing-son story is a weepier tale that lets Jolie have Oscar-nomination-ready moments of sorrow or rage; the corruption story is more exciting and involves civic crusaders like Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). I’m sure the idea is that the personal story of a mother and son was supposed to get us into the story of police corruption. But instead of an interwoven, multi-year saga, the movie feels choppy — like index cards bearing story points from a tragic personal drama and index cards with pieces of a noir-ish police suspense drama that have been shuffled together and randomly dealt out. We get bits of tone, characters and plot from each way of telling this story but we don’t get to the emotional meat of either a full-on weepy or an injustice-revealing suspense film. This is not the emotionally raw Million Dollar Baby or the context-rich Flags of Our Fathers. It’s the baffling Mystic River — a movie that looks important and richly-textured but feels scattered and leaves you feeling unsatisfied.

And it’s long. I realize it is based on a true story and that true stories aren’t neat little packages, but for a movie that does this much meandering, two hours and 21 minutes seems rather indulgent.

For all that, Changeling is not a disaster, and despite its length it doesn’t leave you feeling fidgety. Jolie is a compelling actress and this movie does give her plenty to do. Even in some of the movie’s choppier parts (the last 30 minutes or so feels like a string of “and then”s) she is able to bring some heft and some life to her role. Considering how much the New York of this period has appeared on screen, I’m always eager to see the Los Angeles of the early part of the 20th century. What feels off about this movie is that there isn’t more — more about the relationship of the cops and the city of Los Angeles, of the texture of the city itself. B-

Rated R for violent and disturbing content, and language. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling is two hours and 21 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Universal Pictures. According to several sources, it is scheduled for a general release on Friday, Oct. 31.