Why is Changeling so bad? Make no mistake: it is very, very bad. Don’t listen to those who claim it is good out of some misguided sympathy for or loyalty to Clint Eastwood – this is simply a terrible motion picture. The occasionally good but mightily overrated Eastwood and the always rotten J. Michael Straczynski have taken the axe murders of 20 children, a missing child switcheroo, a wrongful imprisonment in a harsh and cruel psychiatric ward and the widespread and violent corruption of the Los Angeles police force and managed to make them extraordinarily dull. A serious feat.
When you’re making a movie out of a true story you have to find your narrative; Changeling never does that. It sprawls across years, being occasionally a horror film, a weepie, a reform movie, a drama, a police story and a courtroom borefest. The real story behind the movie is one that is complex and strange, and one that would work in this form in a book, but a movie demands more coherence and cohesion, and Straczynski refuses to bring that. The film feels like it has a seven act structure, and you’ll be fooled into thinking that the sucker has ended again and again. Walking out of the movie I realized that the entire final forty five minutes of the movie could have been a text crawl and we would have lost none of the impact.
At the center of Changeling is Angelina Jolie, playing a one dimensional saint who occasionally stops to weep. There are scenes at the end of the movie, where Jolie’s character is sitting in a courtroom during the trial of a man charged with killing 20 children, that I suddenly realized I had no idea who this woman was. Eastwood cuts to shots of her huge, watery eyes as the guy claims he was framed, but what’s going on behind them? Is she, the victim of a police framing herself, filled with doubt? Or disgust? Or anger? Or is she wondering whether to get the ham or the roast beef in the cafeteria? There’s no way of knowing because we never get into the character at all. Is that Jolie’s fault? Only insomuch as she signed on to a script that has a lead character utterly without depth (until the end. In an inexplicable scene we spend five minutes discovering her choice for the 1935 Best Picture. Seriously.).
It’s that script. You can get John Malkovich in your movie to play crusading anti-police preacher Gustav Breeglblox, but if you don’t give him anything to act with he’ll just turn in a big, broad melodramatic performance. The dialogue is filled with clunky and hoary cliches; it’s as if Straczynski researched how people in the 20s talked simply by watching old B films. And then there’s the much-discussed aspects of Jolie’s lines; Spout’s Karina Longworth has noted that if you took a drink every time she says ‘My son!’ you’d get pretty toasty. I think you’d get dead from alcohol poisoning. Here’s another observation I’m stealing from elsewhere: it’s like someone finally made that fake movie from Arrested Development, Homeless Dad. ‘I just want my kids back!’ indeed.
Clint gets lots of accolades for being restrained in his filmmaking, and in some cases understatement will carry the day. In Changeling it gives the whole film a stuffy air, keeping us just too distant from the story and emotions to ever really connect. Even the child murders (the film, by the way, leaves out the molestation aspect of the murders. While watching the film I thought it was weird that the killer just picked up kids to hack them apart. Wikipedia showed me that this was, sadly for the kids, not true. Clint’s understatement serves to dial down the horror, and to make the brutality of the killings into something bizarre and novel) lack a punch. The movie comes to an occasional fiery life – although I didn’t like the performance, Jason Butler Harner’s take on the killer as the mildly retarded love child of Ken Marino and Brendan Fraser was entertaining, and D-Wars superstar Geoff Pierson brings the fury as Jolie’s lawyer – but mostly it sits there. This becomes doubly disconcerting as you realize that Clint is trying to use elements of the movies of the period, bringing a level of studio system era melodrama to the proceedings. There’s a scene where Jolie is just about to get an electroshock treatment in the psych ward – they even have the connectors at her temples! – when John Malkovich rushes in with a court order at the exact second before they turn the switch. In a movie that was melodrama through and through, this would work. In this movie I just laughed out loud.
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone liking this meandering, boring and ultimately undercooked mess of a movie without doing some serious contortions to apologize for Clint. Any Oscar nomination for this film – including one for the crummy, tinkling piano score – will be a sign of the Academy simply kowtowing to Clint (which they’ll probably rather do for Gran Torino anyway). A nom for Jolie will be a simple case of starfucking, as her blubbering, single-not performance isn’t even the best female performance I’ve seen in a theater this week, let alone all year. Changeling is a crashing disappointment and a bad, bad movie.