By Clint Morris

If ”Million Dollar Baby” was Clint Eastwood’s knockout punch, then ”Changeling” is his final half-enthused prod to the opponent’s ribs before collapsing in the ring from fatigue.

Lacking the punch of his earlier efforts behind the camera, Eastwood’s latest plays out a bit like one of those true-story telemovies you see on cable – only with actors much better than Cybill Shepherd and Tracey Gold in the leads (in fact, the performances here are the film’s saving grace, they’re brilliant) and production design Baz Luhrmann would kill for.

Set in Los Angeles in 1928, the film, based on a true story, tells of a single mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) who returns home from work at the local telephone exchange to find her young son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith) gone.
Over the course of the following months, the desperate mother would launch a search that would ultimately prove fruitless. Yet just when it seemed that all hope was lost, a nine year old boy claiming to be Christine’s son seemed to appear out of thin air.
Shockingly, the boy isn’t hers. The authorities want her to admit he is though – that way it looks like they’re doing their job.
When Collins continues to challenge the Prohibition-era Los Angeles police force they have thrown away in a mental hospital.
But as Christine lets the corrupt police force know, “I used to tell Walter, “Never start a fight… but always finish it.” I didn’t start this fight… but by God, I’m going to finish it.” And she does.

This is a good movie – very captivating in fact. And if you’re a parent, as I am, you’ll be all the more rattled by what goes on in it. To think this is based on a true story (Eastwood stuck pretty closely to the facts though some of the characters names have been changed – obviously a few didn’t want to sign off on it unless some of the royalty cheques came to them) is even scarier. It almost unravels like a science-fiction movie – boy swapped for another boy and – or an episode of “The Twilight Zone” but plays even more chilling with the knowing that isn’t such someone’s imagination running wild – this is the celluloid retelling of something an actual woman (and a bunch of other parents, for that matter) went through.

Whatever you think of Angelina Jolie personally (“she stole Jennifer Aniston husband! Let’s get her, girls!”) or professionally (“she’s all lips and ass!”) there’ll be no denying how solid she is here. She’s very good – and just as well, the movie essentially rests on her shoulders. In fact, the only annoying thing about her performance is that its accompanied by a frumpy little hat Eastwood has her wear through the whole film. Strange choice. But I digress, this is Jolie reminding the doubters that she’s not afraid to ditch the designer gowns and mascara to play a commoner – someone who couldn’t afford to even park at the Gap let alone shop there. You believe her as this woman – like dried tears from an hour back, you can see the emotion on her face. The sorrow in her eyes is there from the moment she loses her boy and you’re with her all the way… all the way.

The supporting cast including John Malkovich, uncharacteristically cast as the ‘good guy’ for a change – Rev. Gustav Briegleb, Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan, absolutely brilliant as the indifferent Captain Jones, serial-villain Colm Feore, as good as ever as the corrupt chief of police, and Michael Kelly, terrific as the cop who unearths the evidence at the murder site, are all outdoing themselves to prove their worth to their illustrious boss.

It’s Eastwood who might be the only one not playing his best game here.
The director of such memorable films as ”Unforgiven” and ”Mystic River” has opted to go for the ‘point and shoot’ method of story detainment here. Though habitually known for his plucky choices, Eastwood shows a lack of finesse and mind’s eye here simply letting the thing play out. Hell, Dennis Dugan could’ve done that!

Eastwood also shot way too much footage – with the film running about half-an-hour too long. Just when you think its come to its natural conclusion (which it has) he stretches it out a little longer.

You actually have to remind yourself its Eastwood directing here – because his stamp is definitely not on this one. In fact, without Production designer James J. Murakami’s beautiful sets – he’s done a remarkable job of recreating the era; look at those red trolley carts! – Anyone could be fooled to think it’s something the Hallmark channel had made.

Eastwood’s lazy attitude towards this one hurts it – but not to the point where it significantly damages the film. There’s still a good story here to tell, and that should be enough to still draw the audience in.

It’s not as memorable or evocative as his ”Mystic River” or ”Million Dollar” Baby but Eastwood’s ”Changeling” is still an interesting and gut-twisting foray into the human condition – something the legendary Clint has been studying since hanging his cowboy hat up in the early 90s.