With its overwrought emotions and black-and-white morality, melodrama is a form of storytelling that we believe our society has moved past. We’re too sophisticated now to toss popcorn at the stage. “Melodramatic” is almost always a negative adjective. We almost never see a melodrama that isn’t saturated with post-modern irony.
So as Clint Eastwood dresses up Angelina Jolie in flapper garb, soaks her giant peepers in tears, and sends her out into Changeling, we have to ask, how do we deal with a film aiming for an antiquated style? I’m open to it, in some forms, but need convincing. Which should explain my down the middle reaction. A tale of one woman’s fight against big city corruption, Changeling shows the importance of picking a good story. Scratching and finding a lost treasure from history (and embellishing it, wink)can make up for a bunch of sins. In 1928 in Los Angeles, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) comes home one day to find her son Walter missing.
The search for her son eventually entangles her in a battle between a crusading minister (John Malkovich) and the city’s violent, corrupt police force. Think L.A. Confidential. Battered by bad press, the police find her son and return him with great fanfare to LaLa Land. One problem. It’s not her son. But that doesn’t much matter to the police (boo, hiss, twist the mustache), who are just happy to have the case closed and the press at bay. Collins pushes the police to reopen their search and finds herself in danger. Eastwood has taken one of his favorite motifs – the male child abduction, and this time filters it through a female perspective. However, the film’s melodramatic tendencies mean that the emotions come across too simply, without the proper complexity.
The tenderness feels too contrived for the needs of the story. However, the shocking tale itself keeps unwinding in new and interesting directions. Some will think it unfocused. Eventually, as a new story of a psycho killer enters, the multiple stories become scattered, as does the editing. Until then, it’s mostly terrific – you never know where it’s going. Told through simple dialogue and simple filming, the story carries a very natural suspense.
Flat, expository dialogue is an excellent test of acting skill, and the film has plenty of test. Some critics love Jolie’s performance, but I think the exposition reveals her deficiencies. Watch the way some of this stuff dances in Malkovich’s mouth. Then watch how the flat language stays flat in Jolie’s. Her main affectations consist of crying, eyelash-batting, crying, shouting, crying, placing her hand on her mouth, and crying some more. This is perhaps the most blatant case of a star trying to cry her way to an Oscar that you’ll never see.
That said, Jolie does have power and presence, and she never loses our sympathy. Taking the overall film into consideration, there’s a way to be kinder to her histrionics. Look at the following elements: Its star’s oversized facial features and overdone gesticulations. The film’s melodrama, simple story, and basic emotions. The heroine’s pure white hat and the villains’ pure black ones. The intensely visual storytelling style, with its long takes and classical framing. As suggested by its 1928 setting and its beginning in black and white, Changeling could easily, easily transform into a silent movie. That might be the best way to think of it in all of its elements–as an ode to a lost time.