' Cinema Romantico: Changeling

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Changeling

When it comes to Clint Eastwood the director it is all about the script. I realized this watching his latest effort, "Changeling", based on the true story of a woman in the 20's, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), whose young son disappears. His directorial style is famous among movie buffs. It is spare, lean, and economical. If he has a great script from which to work this fact serves him well. He doesn't overstuff his film with directory flourishes to show us what a genius he is and simply lets the actors and the writing convey the emotion. (See: "Million Dollar Baby", "Unforgiven".) However, if you give him a subpar script, or a by the numbers script, this fact hampers him and that is exactly what happens with "Changeling". Yes, Eastwood the director can certainly set up a shot and he always employs lighting very well but he is unable to use his camera to get across the emotion. He simply can't do it.

It suffers from the same fate as his recent "Flags of our Fathers". It is what I like to call Fifth Grade Play Syndrome. In fifth grade plays darn near every kid has a part and all the parents show up to see their kid and so the director has to ensure he ushers every kid out there for at least one scene but because the director doubles as the fifth grade choir director and hates his job he doesn't care if the play is any good and all that matters is getting every frickin' kid out there at some point to let his folks take a few pictures.

"Changeling" and "Flags of our Fathers" have numerous characters and in both of them it seems as if Eastwood is just ushering characters on and off the stage with no real thought to how they feel or what they are doing. "Okay, Timmy, it's your scene now. Get out there. Okay. Good. Done. Now get back here. Jimmy? Jimmy, it's your turn. Get out there." I pull up my review of "Flags of our Fathers" and see I termed it like watching a "documentary on the History Channel with higher production values".

I don't want it to seem that I'm unsympathetic. The real-life stories of both Christine Collins and the soldiers at Iwo Jima are serious matters but once you choose to commit these tales to film you have to make them dramatic in order to honorably pay tribute. Simply trotting out the information piece-by-piece with no regard to how you are doing it does not make for a dramatic film and hinders our empathy for these people who really existed and really had to go through these horrible events.

Watch "Changeling" and the compare it to, say, David Fincher's "Zodiac" or Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" (just stop this one when it "ends"). You will notice the difference. In the latter films, whether based on fact or fiction, the directors are able to take sprawling stories with large casts and make them very real and very immediate.

The first half-hour or so of "Changeling" is actually quite involving and, to no surprise, primarily focuses on Christine Collins (Jolie is solid in the role) as we meet her and her son Walter and then watch as Walter goes missing and then the police find her son except we don't really know if it's her son or not and we're not sure if the police are on her side or not or if she really is losing her mind. In these sequences Eastwood's style pays off. He doesn't hint one way or another and we find ourselves being drawn into her plight, wondering who is right. But then the movie brings in more corrupt cops and mean doctors and crazy lunatics at a psych ward and serial killers and lawyers and a crusading priest (John Malkovich) and it stops being a movie and becomes a re-enactment. An re-enactment with high production values.

(Postscript: I did not want to haphazardly insert the following into my review but it is important to mention my current Actress-Of-The-Moment Amy Ryan turns up in a tiny supporting part as Jolie's Best Friend In The Psych Ward. She exists for two reasons only: 1.) Exposition and 2.) Helping Jolie's character to stand up the tyranny of the evil psych ward doctor. Or, to say it another way, Ryan is really not playing a character. Yet it must be said that she does what she can with it and really sells her most important line but, for God's sake, can someone give this woman a main role? In a world where Jessica Simpson gets to play leads is that so much to ask?)

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