Angelina Jolie sets her silky, bee-stung lips a-quivering in Clint Eastwood’s weepie-whatsit period melodrama Changeling, playing the mother of a missing son in 1920s California who’s persecuted by an incorrigibly corrupt Los Angeles Police Department. Basing his script on a sensational real-life tabloid story one imagines James Ellroy would have made into a great pulpy read, TV screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (“Murder, She Wrote,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Babylon 5”) has terrific raw material to work with, but winds up filing it down to a bland tale of hope and suffering that falls somewhere between a missing-child teledrama and David Fincher’s Se7en.
The story, rooted in “true events,” couldn’t be toothier: Roller-skating switchboard operator Christine Collins (Jolie) leaves her 10-year-old son Walter at home for a few hours and returns to find him vanished without a trace. A few months later, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the LAPD reunites Christine with Walter, found with a drifter in Illinois, while a pack of media vultures dutifully heralds police for their heroic efforts with a grandstanding photo op at the train station. Except the boy, Christine immediately declares to Jones, is not her son. Nevertheless, she’s pressured to take the kid home on a “trial basis” to avoid embarrassing the force. When she later publicly insists that Jones has made a mistake, the city’s municipal authorities retaliate with a sadistic smear campaign, and Christine’s plight attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who thunders against official vice on his weekly public-radio program. Meanwhile, detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) makes a gruesome discovery at a creepy ranch in northern California that may have some connection to the Collins case.
It is ironic that Jolie, perhaps the world’s most scrutinized celebrity, a woman whose maternal instincts and adoption practices have enthralled the masses, makes such an unconvincing mother-in-extremis. This is partly due to her limitations as an actor, but has more to do, I suspect, with Eastwood’s laissez-faire direction. Jolie never appears to forget that she is “Angelina Jolie,” and it’s no surprise that the scenes in which she is most affecting and least self-regarding, at a mental institution where she has been unlawfully imprisoned, are ones she has played before (Girl, Interrupted), to the merry old tune of Oscar. Malkovich is hilariously pretentious as a well-meaning anti-corruption activist, but his brainy, overly self-conscious shtick is wearing thin, too. Most confusing are the film’s sudden shifts from sappy tearjerker to hard-hitting courtroom drama, with a long, weird digression into the serial-killer genre, a Fincher-esque subplot outfitted with quick flashes of macabre child butchering courtesy of Jason Butler Harner, the film’s only riveting presence.
Some viewers have divined in Changeling’s morass of truth-twisting and to-the-nuthouse extradition tactics an allegory for the Bush Administration’s contempt for veracity, due-course justice, and anything with a whiff of government criticism. But there is far less on the mind of Changeling than the politics of anti-terrorism, and its desultory execution and scattershot storytelling neutralizes any ethics of responsibility the film may want to advance. Besides, would anyone give a nickel for this tepid, tonally dissonant melodrama if the name of an American icon weren’t attached?