One of the most interesting things about seeing films at a festival, for me, is that I get a chance to really challenge the idea of pre-conceived notions effecting my opinion of a movie. I get to see something before there are any reviews or much buzz. Today, an example of this came in The Exchange (or is it Changeling? I keep hearing contradictions about what this eleventh hour name change is all about?), Clint Eastwood‘s second child-gone-missing drama in the past 5 years.
Before I get into what I thought of the film, which I got a last-minute ticket to today, let me just say that the reviews, particularly Todd McCarthy and Richard Corliss, shocked me. McCarthy in particular went all out for the film, comparing it to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, and opening by announcing:
A thematic companion piece to “Mystic River” but more complex and far-reaching, “Changeling” impressively continues Clint Eastwood’s great run of ambitious late-career pictures.
Well you can easily argue that the film could indeed by a companion piece to River, the only thing it is “more” than that film is overwrought and melodramatic. And that’s saying a lot compared to a River, a film that (barely) pulled itself off despite considerably harbouring both of those tendencies.
Changeling, which I’ll call it just to make things easier, frankly, is a mess. It stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a working class single mother circa 1928 Los Angeles. Her son, Walter, “her everything,” goes missing when she is called into work one day, leaving a corrupt LAPD department as her only hope to get him back. A few months later, they do. Except its not Walter, and no one (except a goofy John Malkovich as a local Reverend) believes her. This initial incident and its aftermath provides entry into a giant bucket of content and thematic possibilities: the socio-political elements of the position of women in the 1920s, the power of motherhood, courtroom drama, police corruption, even a Girl, Interrupted style stint in a psych ward. Except the film handles this mishmash poorly, taking on too much and expressing too little, exhausting itself less than an hour into its 140 minute run and leading me to stop caring about where the twists and turns even led.
The problems lie primarily in the script, by Walker Texas Ranger and Babylon 5 vet J. Michael Stracyznski (what is it with Clint hiring ex-Walker scribes?). Adapted from a true story, it could have trimmed down 30% of the content, and spared audiences from witnessing some truly horrible dialogue. One example finds a fellow psych ward inmate (played by Amy Ryan, who is admittedly fantastic in her ten minutes despite the material) empowering Christine by giving her a speech about the doctors at the hospital (who are horrendously mistreating them despite the fact that they are basically there because they were had the power to give the LAPD bad PR) that ends with the exclamation point: “Fuck him and the horse he road in on.” A few scenes later, Jolie repeats the line with over the top enthusiasm when she finally confronts him herself. It was one of many occasions when I mouthed the words of the upcoming lines before they happened. But the direction must be at fault as well. The film feels like it was directed by Clint Eastwood channelling Ron Howard (who produced), turning mind numbingly sentimental whenever it can. The performances, particularly Jolie’s, are way too over the top as a result.
The lone great quality of the film is its cinematography by Tom Stern, nostalgic and as Todd McCarthy correctly identified it, graceful and elegant. And some individual scenes are randomly affecting, particularly Jolie’s discovery of the missing child and initial realization of the returned child not being her’s, which is where initially I thought she was heading for a very strong performance. But as the film starts piling up its plot (which though apparently true, is sometimes quite unbelievable.. her returned son was really obviously not hers, and I can’t imagine how so many heartless individuals, one after another, could so quickly deny this heartbroken mother her suspicions), it feels like Jolie loses her concentration, and, so did I. The many sums of Changeling cannot add up to anything whole because they are all trying to do different things.
Obviously, not everyone agrees with me, and maybe this proves I know nothing about film criticism and that I’ve only largely agreed with critical consensus because I subconsciously leech onto it when making my own opinion. But at the risk of sounding as overdramatic as Changeling itself, if this wins the Palme or god help me some major Oscars, maybe I’ll start focusing this blog on something I’m clearly well-attuned to, like checking the weather or making poorly shot Flip videos of drunk people.
(Also, for another criticism of Clint very evident in Changeling, especially considering its 1920s Los Angeles setting, check this out. Nary a non-white extra could be found in Changeling)