>> Changeling (6/10)

changelingChangeling, the new film from director Clint Eastwood, is an unabashed melodrama.  What exactly does that mean?  Webster’s defines it as “a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.”  Wikipedia gets a little wordier:

Melodramas tend to be formulaic productions, with a clearly constructed world of connotations: a villain poses a threat, the hero escapes the threat (or rescues the heroine) and there is (generally) a happy ending. However, the term is also used in a broader sense to refer to a play, film, or other work in which emotion is exaggerated and plot and action are emphasized in comparison to the more character-driven emphasis within a drama. Melodramas can also be distinguished from tragedy by the fact that they are open to having a happy ending, but this is not always the case. In the 1970s onward, melodramatic films were often targeted at female viewers, and the terms were nicknamed “tearjerkers” or “weepies”.

In Changeling, the heroes are models of purity and goodness.  The villains are 100% evil with no shades of grey.  The plot completely overrides any characterization, and it could thoroughly be described as a weepie.

Distractingly skeletal Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother whose child mysteriously vanishes one day in 1928 Los Angeles.  Roughly five months later, the LAPD (represented here by Jefferey Donavan and Colm Feore.  BOO.  HISS.) gives her a new kid that they steadfastly claim is her son, despite the fact he clearly isn’t, and then ignore Christine’s cries for the truth at every turn.  She finds an unlikely ally in a crusading radio preacher played by John Malkovich’s mustache and wig who commits himself to uncovering the truth and finding justice and closure for Ms. Collins.  The story is based on the true case of the Wineville Chicken Coop murders (consider what lies behind that link a spoiler), a scandal that rocked Southern California in the late 1920’s, involving long-standing corruption in the LA police force.

The true story at the heart of the film is compelling, but the film is a soap opera with higher production values.  It smells like a Lifetime original movie, but looks like Oscar bait.  Eastwood makes downright clumsy directorial decisions (a small list of offenses that come to mind right now:  cutting from the chop of a beheading to cigarette ash falling on the floor in slow-motion, cross-cutting  between two different trials right when the film really needs a climax that will pay off, filming all of the mental hospital scenes like his only research was watching bad movies that had mental hospital scenes in them).

Jolie and Malkovich don’t play characters; they play one line of dialogue over and over.  Jolie’s is “Where is my son?”; Malkovich’s is “The LAPD will be brought to justice.”  Jolie gets great mileage out of her one line, and is skilled enough to deliver it in so many different ways that you’ll almost forget it’s the only thing she’s been given to do in scene after scene (after scene).  The supporting cast is varying degrees of awful.  A handful of kids are given lengthy monologues whose dramatic reach is so far beyond their grasp it borders on comical.  Jeffery Donavon as the evil police captain affects an Irish accent so full of winsome blarney that it sounds like a parody of a cop from the 20’s, and is so dispicably evil (and completely lacking a reason as to why he’s so evil) that it’s ridiculous.

I know it seems like I’ve complained quite a bit, but consider it more of a warning and less of an outright complaint.  Go into this knowing that you are seeing a melodrama, and it is completely serviceable.  The story is full of twists and turns, but the film jerks into the turns roughly, disrupting any sense of tension or tone.  Changeling is maudlin, even borderline campy, but it never gets boring during its lengthy running time.  The film’s mystery drew me in despite the heightened theatrics, but it started to immediately lose its lustre as I left the theatre.  Honestly, it’s just not one of Eastwood’s best.

6 on a 1 to 10 scale

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