Fit snug into the mother superior of self-reflexive roles, Angelina Jolie once again finds herself the eye of the storm in Clint Eastwood's epic melodrama Changeling. Armed with her thick, crimson lips, period duds, and that ever-present cloche, Jolie goes all gooey as Christine Collins, a single mother who finds herself a media fulcrum when she denies that a boy returned to her by the LAPD is Walter, her son who had been kidnapped five months prior.
Based on a catastrophic piece of the infamous Wineville Chicken-Coop Murders, which ran from 1928 to 1930, and the ensuing trials that yielded a major ousting of the LAPD's top tier and almost no real answers, Changeling is an exceedingly visual film yet one that lacks confidence in its imagery, relying too often on clunky language and an unsteady lead performance. This is no loose adaptation of actual events: Collins fought against the terminally-corrupt LAPD for years, became a martyr for forced institutionalization, and kept her job as a roller-skating switchboard operator while continuing the search for her lost boy. That's no small feat for a lone woman in the late 20s/early 30s.
After taking the boy the LAPD presented home, Collins begins to document inaccuracies between the delivered boy and her son, only to be brushed off by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the man in charge of the investigation. Support comes in the form of Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a flamboyant radio preacher who's been hounding the LAPD for years. When Collins finally takes her story to the media, it's Gustav who starts yelling for her return as she is forced into a psychiatric hospital with a gaggle of mistreated women, the most vocal of whom is played by Amy Ryan.
In its third act, Eastwood switches focus to the trial and execution of Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), the man who kidnapped and slaughtered over 20 children on his ranch in Wineville, one of which was Collins' son. The introduction of Northcott disrupts the tone and mood of the film, stumbling from feminist parable to legal drama. It does permit a final scene between Collins and Northcott, allowing Jolie a final, enraged plea for closure: It's later revealed that Walter might have escaped Northcott's ranch, a fact that's meant to bolster an infuriating feel-good ending.
Changeling, like most of Eastwood's excellent latter-day work, is a classy affair, but one of technical weight rather than dramatic. Shot by Tom Stern, the brilliant cinematographer who has been working with Eastwood since 2002's Blood Work, the director's latest is covered in dehydrated colors and beautifully scored by Eastwood himself with lilting pianos and blustery strings. While Jolie overplays her scorned mother, the supporting cast blends in beautifully, especially Donovan's complexly-composited policeman and Malkovich's propulsive, lively clergyman. Schematically unstable, it's J. Michael Straczynski's woozy script that proves the film's most incapable cog, handling its cerebral and narrative shifts with the subtlety of a race car hitting a speed bump.
At a hulking 141-minute runtime, Changeling suffers from more than its fair share of showy moments, none more egregious than when momma bear profanely tells off the head of the psychiatric hospital. Eastwood's direction is proficient, but he finds it impossible for his actress and his aesthetics to coalesce. Unable to internalize the drama, Jolie engulfs every scene with an utterance of "I want my son back!," often cheapening the meticulous production design, courtesy of the talented James J. Murakami. It's a gaudy, showboat performance, trading nuance and grace for simple presence; I'll eat a small fishing boat if she doesn't get an Oscar nomination. British director Michael Winterbottom tempered Jolie the starlet as another single mother left as residue after a media-centric tragedy in A Mighty Heart by centering on the procedure of retrieval. With Eastwood, however, Jolie's weeping caterwaul reduces a firebrand of corrupt politics into a work of enthused pageantry.
First we're gonna catch this Zodiac guy, then we'll find your boy.