'Changeling' not Eastwood's or Jolie's finest film

Al Alexander

Clint Eastwood blurs the line between history and histrionics in "Changeling,'' his under-written, overacted Oscar-baiter starring Angelina Jolie as the most glamorous grieving mother to ever hit the screen.

She weeps, she cries, she shouts – boy, does she shout – with overwrought vigor in her pouty-lipped portrayal of Christine Collins, the roller-skating switchboard supervisor who exposed widespread corruption inside the Los Angeles Police Department during the late 1920s.

Jolie practically screams "give me the damn Oscar'' in overselling every line and situation with  emoting that would drive most directors batty. Not Eastwood. He allows her to unleash some of the most unintentionally entertaining camp since Faye Dunaway took a stand against wire hangers in "Mommy Dearest.''

Sporting a pixie wig and heavy layers of glow-in-the-dark ruby-red lipstick, Jolie looks more like she’s auditioning for "The Betty Boop Story'' than she does a distraught single mother searching desperately for her missing 9-year-old son. 

Wait! Are those fake tears running over her flawless cheekbones? Yes, they are, and they look amazing against her alabaster skin.

The effect is only slightly diminished after she gets her bouncy bob mussed during a brief stay in the nuthouse (triggering flashbacks to ``Girl, Interrupted'') to absorb a few jolts of electroshock that you pray will also jumpstart Eastwood’s lethargically paced epic.

Could it be he’s the changeling? You know, a phony Clint Eastwood being passed off as the real Clint Eastwood.

It would certainly be in keeping with the film’s key plot point about the overtly corrupt LAPD looking to overhaul its negative image by trying to pass off a savvy young vagabond as Christine’s missing son. Thus proving that it actually does real police work when not strong-arming or shooting down the citizenry they’re sworn to serve and protect. 

Like us, Jolie’s brighter-than-she-looks Christine believes she’s not only being duped, she’s being played as a pawn.

So she fights back, taking her claims of a changeling to the press. But the police fight back even harder by publicly labeling her a nut job and then locking her up in zaniest mental hospital this side of "Cuckoo’s Nest'' – all while her real son remains missing, possibly a victim of a serial child killer, whose story is awkwardly crammed into the mix.

The  script, culled from the LAPD files by journalist J. Michael Straczynski, never fails to go exactly where you know it’s headed, carried along on the wings of thin dialogue and shallow characterizations.

You don’t care a hoot about any of them, except possibly  John Malkovich’s portrayal of a muckraking Presbyterian minister bravely (and blusteringly) using his weekly radio broadcasts to sound off against L.A.’s ``finest,'' and later champion Christine’s fight to get her son back.

Malkovich is deliciously snarky, but oddly heroic in proving great actors can make inane pap sound compelling. Unfortunately, the rest of Eastwood’s largely no-name ensemble lacks his gift, making for a long slog through a 140-minute Lifetime-style movie about female empowerment told entirely through platitudes.

Eastwood and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Tom Stern, do however offer many a pretty picture to conceal all the blemishes.

From the sets, to the costumes to the locations, "Changeling'' never looks anything but richly authentic. Which makes it all the more disappointing Eastwood loses his famous eye for detail when it comes to the ham-handed script and  hammy villains stripped of any hint of complexity or ambiguity.

They are what they are, just like the film is what it is, which ain’t much. And that includes Jolie, who proves that looks (and multiple contrivances) can indeed kill when you’re trying to be convincing as a harried, working-class mom.

You want to believe, but she and Eastwood just won’t allow it in a story in which the boy isn’t the only thing missed; so is a golden opportunity.

The Patriot Ledger

"CHANGELING" (R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.) Cast includes Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Amy Ryan. Directed by Clint Eastwood.