When hubris brings a person down, that’s the stuff of tragedy. It’s harder to make a compelling drama about someone who just had crappy luck.
But that’s the best way to describe the true story of Christine Collins. In Clint Eastwood’s latest prestige pic, Changeling, Angelina Jolie plays Collins as the model of single moms: She puts a suburban roof over her 9-year-old son’s head, works all day, and still always looks coiffed and stunning in the latest fashions of 1928. But when Christine calls the Los Angeles PD to report her son Walter missing, she quickly finds herself living in a noir. First the cops delay the search for 24 hours (no Amber Alerts back then). Then, several months later, after Christine has won over the press and a charismatic radio preacher (John Malkovich), the LAPD trumpets its success: Her son has been discovered in an Illinois diner. Only problem is, the kid the cops present to her with fanfare is a short, freckled towhead. Walter wasn’t.
In the world as we know it, the story would stop here, with a shamefaced official apology. But, as the film takes great pains to explain to us, the LAPD of the 1920s was little more than a badge-wearing branch of the mob. Rather than admit he made a mistake (if it was, in fact, a mistake), Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) begs Collins to “trust him” that the boy is her son — physically altered a tad, perhaps, by his ordeal. Intimidated by the uniforms and flashbulbs, Christine agrees to take the impostor home, but quickly realizes she can’t ignore the evidence of her senses. Rather than admit to its ruse, the police department marshals all the forces of early psychiatry to convince her she’s nuts.
Few American stories really deserve to be called “Kafka-esque,” but this is one. When Christine speaks the self-evident truth, she’s pronounced crazy, and the truthiness of white-bearded doctors, who have spiels about maternal self-deception and fear of responsibility, becomes the official story. Such a tale could be told in a few ways — absurdist humor comes to mind. So does dark, intense character study. Instead, Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski have produced something that would work just fine on the Hallmark Channel. When in doubt, they take the well-trodden path, eschewing nuances and ambiguities. The cops are bad men, plain and simple, without shadings or backstory. (For a contrast, look at the same milieu in L.A. Confidential.)
And Christine remains a noble sufferer worthy of a 1940s weepie. We never see her goofing off in an ordinary way with her son, or how she interacts on a daily basis with the boy who’s impersonating him. Yet this may be the most intriguing aspect of the tale, even when it goes into gothic convolutions involving chicken coops and hatchets. How does a model mother behave when the wrong fledgling returns to her nest? Does she strive to be kind and nurture the intruder, or does she let her anger show?
Straczynski doesn’t seem to know or care. And Jolie can’t get outside the persona of Angelina Jolie, force of nature and the face that launched a thousand Us covers. While her rage and grief are well played, they’re about the only emotions she shows. When Amy Ryan appears briefly on-screen, it’s hard not to recall the far more interesting mother of a missing child she portrayed last year in Gone Baby Gone.
Jolie can act, but she isn’t qualified to play the sort of woman people underestimate. As a result, Christine Collins is mainly an opportunity for her to do a scene that rivals Sean Penn’s turn in Mystic River for parental histrionics. If Angie gets an Oscar nod, that’ll be a twist as predictable as anything in this rote film about a story so sad and strange, it had to be true.