It's hard to name a filmmaker who has enjoyed a more luminous twilight career than the prolific Clint Eastwood, 78, whose conscience-pricked thrillers Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby struck resonant chords of morality and mortality.
Though that rueful music underscores Changeling, a melodrama based on the incredible-but-true 1928 mystery of a missing child in Los Angeles, at times it verges on the tinny.
What begins as the compressed tale of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mom whose son vanishes, unwinds into a remarkably diffuse saga. It's Mother, Interrupted - and also an exhaustive inventory of the widespread institutional corruption that engulfs her and destroys innocent lives.
First the public relations-challenged LAPD fails Christine, and blames her. As does the county mental facility where she is remanded. In Eastwood's Kafkaesque weepie, every man in Southern California shows contempt for the phone-company supervisor except a crusading minister (John Malkovich) and an attentive police detective (Michael Kelly), who in investigating an apparently unrelated case sees how it connects to Christine's.
If films were people, Changeling would have multiple-personality disorder. It opens as a 1930s-style potboiler, morphs into a '50s-era police corruption saga, briefly transforms into a '70s-type horror movie (bloody axes and all), and closes as a generic courtroom drama.
While components of Eastwood's film are excellent, in particular Kelly's quietly tenacious performance and the evocative period details, Changeling is a film of parts, not a unified whole. With its many tonal shifts and dangling subplots, J. Michael Straczynski's sprawling script is a problem. Jolie's performance is another.
Surely the loveliest, and one of the more talented, creatures ever to bound before the movie camera, Jolie is not the first star whose tabloid notoriety intrudes on the moviegoer's ability to view her in character. It is hard, very hard, to see her as someone other than the homewrecking, globetrotting, daddy-hating, Brad-loving, fertile Myrtle Mother Courage of the bedroom eyes and pillow lips.
During the early 1960s, the moviegoing public felt much the same way about Elizabeth Taylor, who in retrospect consistently turned in tremendous performances during that era. Perhaps in 40 years one will be able to appreciate Jolie's Christine without the interference of media static.
In a film shot mostly in browns, Jolie's Christine with her turquoise dresses and vermilion lips looks like a garish neon sign in the middle of an otherwise monochromatic affair.
It's not only the way Jolie is costumed and made up that throws the movie out of whack. It's the way she doesn't really interact with the other players, but is a stoic martyred by authority. It's the way she inhabits her own hermetically sealed space, like the Madonna in an old masters altarpiece. When her son disappears, doesn't Christine have neighbors or friends she can go to?
As Christine is failed by the authorities, so Jolie is failed by a screenwriter who fails to dramatize the historical record and a director who indulges his star. (This is unusual for Eastwood, who typically favors underplayers.) Jolie sucks the oxygen from each scene. This may be why most of the scenes without her have more flow and life. What an unbelievable story. What an unconvincing performance.
Changeling **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Angelina Jolie, Colm Feore, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Parent's guide: R (unsettling violence, profanity, mature themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Carrie Rickey at 215-854- 5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/