Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 06 October 2008
Source Universal Pictures 35mm Print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
Before we get to Changeling, here’s a quick recap of Clint Eastwood’s thirty-eight years as a director:
After making a few surprising, nearly experimental first features (The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me, Breezy), Eastwood settled into the sorts of Westerns or action films for which he was known (and in which he would also star), extending the anonymous, grisled gunmen that Eastwood had portrayed for other directors, in films like High Plains Driter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet. These self-propelled star-vehicles at some point gave way to a series of often fascinating variations which highlighted a hitherto unappreciated depth and poetry in Eastwood’s star persona and auteuristic bent: Honkytonk Man, Pale Rider, and White Hunter, Black Heart added both gravitas and a sense of the apocalyptic to his personal mythos, while Bird established that he was a filmmaker worth taking seriously, with a vision and attention to detail and character as astute as any of the more lauded directors of his generation. This was confirmed finally with Eastwood’s first series of Academy Awards with Unforgiven – which seems to me one of only very few Oscar recipients of the last couple of decades actually deserving of the prize.
That film’s reception seems to have encouraged him finally to pursue serious and sensitive drama, but his next two films – the woefully undervalued A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County – failed to command the same attention as their predecessor, a turn of events that likely inspired him to rest his laurels with the larkish Space Cowboys and a trio of throwaway, mass-market-based thrillers (Absolute Power, True Crime, and Blood Work). These films led directly into Mystic River, another thriller based on a popular novel, which earned the director another mantle-load of awards for its uncharacteristically operatic tone and loud, melodramatic acting. Heartened again by the Academy’s taste for his serious work, Eastwood delivered Million Dollar Baby – more crying, more awards – and two impressive WWII epics. These were heavily acclaimed, but failed to earn their money back.
I rehearse all this at length because it helps me in some way to account for the origins of Changeling, Eastwood’s new film, and a work of cinema so poorly conceived and executed, so crudely constructed in nearly every way, so slick, false, and tasteless, that its provenance is otherwise difficult to comprehend. I will be the first to proclaim Eastwood a great director, even occasionally a personal hero, but his choices as a director are often maddeningly ill-advised, too often seeming dictated by the market or the approval (or opprobrium) of critics and award ceremonies. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were bitter pills to swallow – not at all simplistic in their messages or politics – which is probably why they failed to make good box office. So, with Changeling, Eastwood falls back upon the brittle skeleton of his last hit, Million Dollar Baby, with another pseudo-message picture about a gutsy broad, never giving up, and always doing what’s right. And the result is a mess, the work of an artist so coddled in his venerable old age that he believes expensive production design, big-name actors, and straightforward messages will earn another $100 million and another set of statuettes.
Admittedly, my narrative of the still-birth of Changeling may well be reductive and presumptuous, but it’s a good deal more credible than the one that Eastwood trots out, regardless of how wishfully he emphasizes it as a “True Story” in the opening credits (and advertising, I’ve noticed). Indeed, Changeling is a film about the oppressiveness of bullshit and the need to combat it, so it’s sadly ironic that Eastwood would try to dress up such tired ideas and poor craftsmanship, score it with schmaltzy music, and ask that we take it home as something “true.”
Of course, this is what the mean coppers of 1928 Los Angeles try to do to poor Angelina Jolie: replace her vanished son with a bad, obviously phony, chubby-cheeked facsimile. Single mom Christine Collins’ boy Walter disappears while she’s putting in overtime as a rollerskating telephone-switchboard supervisor, and some time later the semi-Irish Captain J.J. Jones finds her a new one from DeKalb, IL (in apparently the same roadside greasy-spoon where we left Clint at the end of Million Dollar Baby). Whether this is out of spite or laziness, we never quite learn, but Christine somehow generously decides to give the kid a trial-run just to be sure—until the fact that he’s three inches and one foreskin shorter than her real boy prompts her to call out, repeatedly, “You’re not my son!” This leads her on a quest for, yep, the truth, aided by friendly priest and radio personality John Malkovich, who here looks like Vincent Price trying to soften his image by wearing a series of lovely cardigans. But because the police hate the truth or hard work or scruples or all of the above, and because “everyone knows women are fragile,” they lock her up in loony bin, where a hooker teaches her to finally, anachronistically say “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” to all who doubt her. Throughout all this, we’re also treated to scenes of children being kidnapped, imprisoned in a chicken coop, and murdered with an axe.
To be fair, one of the more curious, even charming things about Clint Eastwood’s films is their strange bum-notes: corny jokes, tacky or unwarranted violence, ponderous music-cues, whole scenes of questionable acting. Changeling is a veritable anthology of such bad ideas, but the cumulative effect is numbing in the extreme, especially egregious given the evident waste of money and talent. Jolie tries to seem demure enough to be appropriate for the period, only judiciously unveiling her “moxie” in small doses, but her performance is a rather unusual bore, for which the best that can be said is that it will hopefully funnel some millions into her charity work. Jason Butler Harner gives an entertaining, but totally overblown performance as outsized psychopath Gordon Northcott, a cross between Kyle MacLachlan and Bruno from Strangers on a Train, who giggles like a freak while chopping up little boys and mewls “Silent Night” when they finally, grotesquely string him up. The period detail of the sets and costumes is not surprisingly top-shelf, but with plotting so predictable, bad guys so cartoonish and two-dimensional, and acting so mawkish, who cares?
All of this goes on for two and a half hours, at the end of which Christine coyly flips on a radio to root for It Happened One Night as the Best Picture of 1934. Even if the preceding film had been worth a damn, this still would seem an overly cutesy move, but the effect here is little more than laughable. Just what does Changeling amount to, Oscar-worthy or otherwise? By its end, we’ve endured not one but two trial sequences that would seem to drive home a satisfying Point of what’s come before: that truth will triumph over corruption; or that truth is always elusive but must be pursued at all costs nonetheless; or simply that Los Angeles likes Trials of the Century (yes, that’s Dominick Dunne (or his doppelgänger) sitting on one of the juries). Whatever it is, it’s wholly unconvincing, a film worthier of producer Ron Howard than its director, a major misfire from a major director who here seems to be mining safe material for easy prestige. And it may work, too: Once the Academy gets its lunch-hooks on this (and precious little else this autumn), Eastwood may need to install new shelving in his trophy room. It wouldn’t be the first time that Oscar has fallen for the old bait-and-switch.
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