Set for the most part in Los Angeles in 1928, it's about a telephone switchboard supervisor and single mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), whose 9-year-old son Walter suddenly and mysteriously goes missing. Five months after his disappearance the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles Police Department, desperate for good publicity, announces Walter has been found. With great photo-op fanfare, the boy is brought into the city by train whereupon Christine immediately recognizes that this kid is not her son. "Take him home on a trial basis," says Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) wearing his best pasted-on smile.
Despite the rather stilted period re-creation and acting, this portion of "Changeling" is effective and creepy. The police are bogeymen. Forget good cop/bad cop. In the LAPD, it's all bad cop/bad cop.
As it moves forward, the film becomes more and more outlandish. Even though this is a true story, Eastwood doesn't provide a satisfying explanation for its implausibilities. Christine takes the boy home and reports to the police the physical disparities in her "son" – he's several inches taller, circumcised, his teeth and eyes are different, his schoolteacher thinks he's an impostor, and so on. The police pooh-pooh her objections as the rantings of a distraught mother, but why does no one think to ask the boy a few well-chosen questions that only he and Christine know the answers to?
Christine's chief champion is a radio pastor played by John Malkovich in marcelled hair and lugubrious tones. But before he can rally to her cause she is thrown by the police into the psychopathic ward, which Eastwood portrays as a snake pit out of a '40s melodrama. (Amy Ryan stands out as one of the inmates.) By this time, "Changeling" has morphed into a horror film, and not a terribly good one, either. Eastwood and his screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, villainize the bad guys, especially the police captain, to the point of absurdity. In the best movies, bad guys are never simply bad – we are always given reasons for why they act the way they do. (Any actor knows that the best way to play a villain is to play him as a hero in his own mind.)
In a way, Jolie's Christine is just as one-dimensional as the cops and the killers that we see. Even before Walter goes missing she seems oddly abstracted from her surroundings. With her cloche hat, bright red lipstick, and bone-white skin, she resembles a mannequin. When she rages against the injustices of the police and becomes a feminist crusader, it's as if an android had suddenly got religion.
Jolie has a tendency in her movies to go all masklike and inscrutable, and not just in action vehicles like the "Lara Croft" series. But she was wonderfully expressive in "A Mighty Heart," where she played Mariane Pearl, and I would have thought that some of that woeful gravity would find its way into "Changeling" as well. Eastwood must have wanted it this way – icy-hot. If so, he miscalculated. Christine is a heroine who would seem right at home in one of those audioanimatronic displays at Disney World.
Eastwood is up against some pretty stiff competition here, most notably "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential." Unlike the best of his recent work, "Changeling" seems surprisingly generic. Right on cue, big dramatic scenes occur during downpours; furtive faces are shrouded in shadow. Eastwood gets all noirish for us but, like Jolie's performance, there's a rote quality to it all. Even the mournful little ditties that Eastwood composed for the soundtrack seem canned.
It's possible that this real-life story, which tries to open out into a full-scale view of '20s Los Angeles in all its sociopolitical corruption, was too ambitious, too Dreiserian, for Eastwood. Years ago he starred in a movie about killers, bad cops, and corrupt politicians called "Dirty Harry." Since that time he's become enshrined as an auteur, and at 78, he's more than earned the right to be taken seriously. Not so much this time, though. This hothouse "Changeling" is freeze-dried. Grade B- (Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.)