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Eastwood’s “Changeling” Lacks the midas touch

Observer Scene | Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ever since 2003’s “Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood has had the Midas touch. He reads a script, picks it and turns it into Oscar gold. It’s as simple as that.

So it comes as no surprise that when it was announced that Eastwood’s latest film, “Changeling,” was slated for release this year, Oscar hopefuls throughout Hollywood began quivering in their shoes. Too bad Eastwood’s streak of brilliance ends here.

Sure it’s an OK movie, perhaps even a good one by some measures, but for a film bearing Eastwood’s stamp, “Changeling” doesn’t quite make the grade. Its plot is suspect, the actors give forced performances (minus Angelina Jolie’s perfectly-cast turn), and to make matters worse, in keeping with a mostly-faithful transition from historical record to script, writer J. Michael Straczynski ends up writing an open-ended conclusion that is far from satisfying. The journey, however, isn’t strong enough to justify the disappointing destination here.

Set in Los Angeles during the late 1920s, this arresting, true story chronicles Christine Collins (Jolie), a mother forced to confront the Los Angeles Police Department. Following her son Walter’s abduction, Christine launches an unsuccessful search to find him. Just when it seems like all hope is lost, a nine-year-old boy claiming to be her son (Gattlin Griffith) emerges seemingly out of nowhere. After taking in the child, she begins to realize that he is in fact not her son, and challenges the LAPD about the issue. However, the Prohibition-era department alienates Collins, making her out to be a bad mother. Torn down and cast aside by society because she dared to challenge the corrupt forces behind the cover-up of her son’s abduction, she finds a lone source of hope in local activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) and together they try to expose the corruption.

Although it’s Eastwood’s film, Jolie steals the show. Perfectly cast as Collins, the script gives her the chance to shine, especially in the latter half of the film when she gets thrown in a psych ward, bringing back memories of her Oscar-winning turn in “Girl Interrupted.” She hones her emotions exceptionally well, often erupting like a storm cloud one second, only to wind down and give a heartfelt, low-key performance the next. However, Jolie has one downfall: she is ensemble-proof. While the lights shine on her throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, the rest of the cast is hung out to dry by her domineering on-screen presence.

As “Changeling” half-consciously tip-toes its way towards its disappointing ending, Eastwood piles climax upon climax and in doing so he turns the film from a mildly interesting melodrama into a dull and increasingly contrived mess. What starts as a mystery turns into an open book, and what is initially a tastefully shot vintage-feeling film becomes its own convoluted head-trip, filled to the brim with confusing dialogue and shots that can only be found in horror films.

The script doesn’t know when not be slavish to the historical record, and Eastwood’s directing, I’m shocked to say, is clumsy and allows the intended themes of the film to be lost and buried six feet under the ground. In the end, “Changeling” will probably be more heavily criticized than it deserves to be, but that’s only because Eastwood has set the bar so high for himself that anything less than perfection is a disappointment.

In Hollywood, you’re only as good as you’re last film. With that in mind, it may be right to say that Clint Eastwood no longer has the Midas touch.

Contact Shane Steinberg at [email protected]