You know its a bum year for movies when a director as good as Clint Eastwood takes on material as weird and wild as "The Changeling" and whiffs.

"Changeling" is the stranger-than-fiction period story of single working-mom Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) who takes on the corrupt L.A. police department (the year is 1928) after the cops bungle the case of her missing son.

First, police ignore her missing-boy report, then attempt to cover their incompetence by forcing her to accept a child who is (inconveniently) not hers.

The more Collins presses her case - she proves that the substitute kid is a fake, and enlists the aid of a rabble-rousing clergyman (John Malkovich) to hound police via his radio program - the more outrageous the police become, branding Collins a nut and throwing her in an asylum. There she meets other women (including Amy Ryan) who've been falsely imprisoned/tortured/medicated - usually because they crossed the police department in some way.

Eastwood's strategy is to counter the true-life extremes of the narrative with a measured approach (some might say plodding and monotonous, and by "some" I mean me.)

There are times when the laid-back style is effective. The asylum's resident psychiatrist (Denis O'Hare) is calm, in the manner of a man who knows he's entitled to be ruthless. This is a nicely judged turn that underlines his unchecked power, her utter helplessness.

It's easy to see (and many have) "Changeling" as a proto-feminist "Snake Pit" parable, with Jolie as the righteous heroine who finally rouses a cowed, cop-fearing city to her cause.

Less widely noted is the fairly obvious statement Eastwood is making about diminished civil liberties, the danger to everyone when dissent is marginalized, when a fearful populace trades freedom for security.

The problem, though, is that the massive pile-up of bizarre details surrounding this case (there are plenty more in the offing) simply overwhelm these themes, big as they are, just as they overwhelm Eastwood's dreary, measured approach (he scores his movies, and could only come up with eight damn notes for this one).

By midpoint, you feel that the story has already defeated him. He misses, for instance, the surreal aspect to Collins' enforced surrogacy - part of it is the willing participation of her creepy doppleganger son, a fascinating mini-drama that "Changeling" more or less ignores.

And the movie gets much more weird - Sweeney Todd weird. The one good cop on the force follows a missing-boy lead and finds a nightmare ranch on the edge of town, where an ax-wielding maniac slaughters abducted children.

With all due respect to feminism and civil liberties, any movie that features children chopped up by an ax-wielding maniac is a movie about children being chopped up by an ax-wielding maniac. Especially when the eccentric performance of the actor playing the maniac (Jason Butler Harner) is more quiveringly alive than anything else in the movie.

It stays with you long after you've forgotten Jolie, who is seriously miscast as Everygal. Eastwood spackles her in tattoos and binds her in a dreary brown coat, but all attempts to normalize Jolie backfire, and are at odds with Eastwood's highlighting of her gigantic crimson lips (ostentatiously red in this pea-green movie) and her eyes, as big and blue and wet as the Pacific.

She may live in a bungalow, but she belongs in Rivendell. *

Produced by Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Robert Lorenz, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by J. Michael Straczynski, music by Clint Eastwood, distributed by Universal Pictures.