To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And so it’s possible that the “buzz” about Clint Eastwood’s latest, Changeling, is true and that lead actress Angelina Jolie is destined for an Oscar nomination. But since very few people have actually seen Changeling—which has so far played only at film festivals and which will not be released theatrically until the end of this month—I’d like to suggest that Universal has put some serious marketing behind this turkey. Because the truth is that Jolie is the worst thing about the film.
Based on an actual 1928 kidnapping incident in Los Angeles, Changeling is an awkward hybrid of disparate genres—including but not limited to the thriller, the prestige period picture, the mental ward weepie, and the courtroom drama. It’s also maybe the most sentimental movie Eastwood has ever directed, which, if you’ve seen Mystic River, you know is saying a lot. For all the movie’s faults, however, Eastwood has always had a more complicated relationship to gender themes than his critics have given him credit for (see Don Siegel’s 1971 The Beguiled) and Changeling is an involving study of what life was like for a single woman in the flapper era (i.e, not so good).
That’s why Jolie’s mannered performance is so wildly inappropriate. Her vamp shtick has been stale for a long while now, but placed into the context of the 1920s it’s also a distracting anachronism (though in fairness, John Malkovich, as a crusading, pencil-mustachioed minister, does his best to keep up). Reportedly, Eastwood hadn’t even come up with a title on the eve of the Changeling‘s premiere this summer at Cannes, and his last minute choice is telling. Does he wonder, as I do, what this film might look like if a better actress had been substituted for Jolie?—Benjamin Strong