Movie Review: Changeling

email 30 Dec 2008

In its instructions for creating a Mint Julep, The Joy of Cooking warns, citing Voltaire, that “The good is the enemy of the best.”  It is such a joy that Rombauer’s great reference provides nearly as much advice and philosophy on life in general as it does on cooking.  Now… I do not want to cast such negative aspersions upon Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, because it is a wholly worthwhile endeavor, a fine film with much to recommend it.  It is good, perhaps very good, depending on your point of view.  But it is not a “great” film.

I put “great” in quotations because I want to make it clear what I mean by that.  I don’t throw around “great.”  “Great” is a close cousin in my film-talk to “masterpiece.”

The story is this: Angelina Jolie plays a single working mother of a young son in 1920s Los Angeles.  One day she returns from work and her son is missing.  He remains missing for some time at which point a boy is trucked from Illinois with the officials’ claims that he is her missing son.  One look and she knows he is not; she expresses this to the local police but they will hear none of it.  They insist that he has been transformed by the experiences incurred during his absence, to a point somewhat beyond recognition even to his supposed mother, hence the film’s title.

Ms. Collins, Jolie’s character, continues to insist and fight for her actual son to be returned to her, which causes great irritation to the police captain.  She is helped by a local minister played with typical relish by John Malkovich.  The film is supposedly a true story, and it is a good and strong one.  My problem was that the movie did not render the powerful story elements in a way which they properly deserved.

Director Clint Eastwood presents the story in too much of a matter of fact way, seemingly with the attitude that the facts of the true story are so profound that no further embellishment is required.  But it does not work here.  There needs to be a little of the David Lynch dreamscape here, something ethereal, or at least more in the way of reflection and musing on the circumstances.  It seems as if Eastwood is being careful to avoid taking undue risk, tip-toeing into a tepid bath when the audience should be thrown at ice water and shocked by flame.  There is nothing grabbing me by the back of the neck and throwing me into the ground or against a brick wall, there is nothing beating over my head, shaking my torso into convulsions — even though this is what our heroine must endure.

Jolie delivers a strong performance portraying a strong woman.  And the film is great as a period depiction of 1920s L.A.  In fact, the re-creation of this era impressed me more than anything in the film.  Again, though, I feel too much energy went into re-creating this world and not enough into delivering a truly profound narrative vision.

I give Changeling a mild general recommendation, a marginal thumbs up.  This is still a recommendation.  It is good, but not great — not the best.  If you have a hunger that can be satiated by that setting of circa 1920s Los Angeles, especially having consumed an appetizer in The Fall, of which I’ve written previously on more than one occasion, then I give a stronger endorsement.  Under the right circumstances, this can be a film viewed with much relish and delight — not unlike those feelings as expressed by Malkovich in the film.

So that is what I have to say now about Changeling.  I wrote most of this while waiting for father and Laura at Back to the Grind coffee house in downtown Riverside (free wi-fi always) last Boxing Day while waiting for them to run errands.  That evening, we saw together Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which has similar problems with sticking too much in a matter-of-fact way to the true underlying story.

Love and Happiness in the New Year



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