Clint Eastwood, his admirers like to say, makes old-fashioned movies with old-fashioned values. My heart swells just typing those words, but I'm not duped by nostalgia or sentimentality. As the Carmel codger proves for the 'nth time with the glossy and ponderous Changeling, professionalism without inspiration may be no hindrance to a plumber, but it is a fatal handicap for a filmmaker.
In the post-Tarantino world, where films unfold out of order or simultaneously move forward and backward in time, a linear story requires something extra -- inspiration, passion, gritty mise-en-scene or enormous energy -- to engage audiences on a visceral level. Eastwood's solemn movies, with their attention to craft and detail, oh-so-tasteful sensibility, perfunctory plotting, metronome pacing and palpable yet punchless morality, don't command our attention and demand our souls so much as ask us to sit politely and cluck in righteous indignation. That worked OK in the '50s, as Stanley Kramer's career attests, but not anymore.
Changeling opens with a melancholy saxophone and a thick-lipped, heavily made-up Angelina Jolie, a double-barreled homage to the quintessential celluloid saga of L.A. corruption, Chinatown (starring thick-lipped, heavily made-up Faye Dunaway). This isn't the postwar period, however, but 1928, a kindler, gentler era when a single mother could work at the phone company and own a modest home. And yet, notwithstanding Eastwood's two-hour-plus crusade to put St. Angie on a pedestal, it's a man's world.
J. Michael Straczynski's simplistic script, based on a true story but inevitably embellished in places, imagines switchboard supervisor Christine Collins (Jolie) arriving home late from work one Saturday to find her nine-year-old son Walter missing. After several miserable weeks, the police declare they have found the boy in Illinois, and they stage a media-packed reunion at the train station. But Collins knows instantly that the lad isn't Walter, and persists in challenging the arrogant police captain to reopen the case.
Changeling puts Collins through the wringer, ratcheting her anguish and persecution and cinching her underdog status, only to squander all that emotional currency by switching gears to a policier and crime story. The two roads eventually meet up, but our intimate connection with the main character has been lost.
Curiously, despite the ample opportunities afforded by the disparate plot threads and the passage of time, Eastwood includes nary a whiff of the Depression, or of the gangs of orphans, runaways and unwanted children haunting L.A. and riding the rails in the '20s and '30s. His social commentary is limited to some passing digs at the pack mentality of newspapermen and a full-scale indictment of the brutal and uncontrolled authority of the LAPD.
As a way to amuse myself, I read the latter as a vague reference to the Bush years -- the above-the-law arrogance of those in power, the sheep-like note-taking of the press corps, the Guantanamo-style rendition of troublemakers. Eastwood's ineffectual wrist-slaps, mere weeks before the administration evacuates the premises, barely warrant mentioning. But it's instructive -- or perhaps just sadly comical -- that the fellow serving up this cautionary historical fable about the abuse of police power enthusiastically played "Dirty" Harry Callahan, an ends-justify-the-means cop who leapt to pop-culture superstardom as the right-wing poster boy for Nixon-era law-and-order.
Even more insulting, depending on your sensitivity to Hollywood's consistently unflattering portrayals of women, is the condescension heaped on Collins. Much is made -- by every male character along with the filmmakers -- of her gallant and courageous stand against the forces of evil. But if one looks closely, she's more of a victim and a symbol than a heroine. The actual work of freeing the citizenry from the LAPD's yoke is spearheaded by a fearless Presbyterian minister with an unrelenting radio program (John Malkovich, channeling Vincent Price) and the high-powered upper-crust attorney who takes the LAPD to court.
The most depressing aspect of Changeling isn't either of those violations, or the six or so endings it takes before we are finally released to continue with our lives. It is Eastwood's stultifying pretension that he is revealing Great American Truths. An anachronism and Olympian spoon-feeder, Eastwood sells his characters short and does even worse by his audiences.
Changeling opens Friday, October 24, 2008.