Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich
3 stars (out of five)

Clint Eastwood is an excellent director, and Angelina Jolie, when given an excellent character and excellent director, is excellent. So the fact that Changeling is not quite an excellent film is frustrating and perplexing.

Eastwood’s laconic direction and his unsentimental recreation of late-1920s Los Angeles are terrific, and as in A Mighty Heart, Jolie demonstrates, for those obsessed with her tabloid exposure, that she can act. The trouble with Changeling is that the story is never quite sure of what it wants to be. Reportedly spending a year researching the true story, J. Michael Straczynski (of TV’s Babylon 5 and a sometimes controversial run on the Amazing Spider-Man comic) presents a story with all the zig-zags and scope of real life, but some of his and Eastwood’s choices in how to present the messy and unsatisfying material of a real-life tragedy are a little disorienting.

The beginning of the film tells us that this is based on a true story, but I have to confess I forgot that as I watched the film, and it made some of the film’s narrative choices seem inexplicable, when the explanation actually was, “that’s kinda how it happened.” The movie opens on Angelina Jolie’s character, a single mother with her small son. The boy vanishes, and we have a drama about a mother’s loss. When the film widens to become a tale of unbearable corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, a crusading preacher standing in opposition, and a demonic serial killer, it sometimes seems that Jolie’s story is lost for too long at a stretch.

I mean, look at the title: A changeling is a faerie child left in place of a stolen human boy. So the very title focuses the viewer on the strange twist of the case in which another boy entirely claims to be Jolie’s lost son, resulting in horrific mistreatment of the mother. Yet that’s a fraction of the film, a trigger of much of the tragedy that follows the loss of Jolie’s true son. The script might have done a better job of communicating how expansive it intended to become, and balancing the multiple elements so that it didn’t seem that the film drags for long sequences before returning to its emotional core.

Despite this, the film uncovers a level of injustice, mistreatment of women, and general civic corruption that would be unbelievable were it not true. As a history lesson, as a walk through a well-recreated past, and as a showcase for stylish direction and subdued, effortless acting, the film is a winner. That the picture seems unbalanced overall, or underdeveloped in some ways (Jolie’s character seems to have not a friend in the world, and that’s never acknowledged or explained) keeps it from greatness, but does not make it unworthy of your time or cinematic dollar.

In 2008, it’s hard to watch this film without looking for parallels to our modern world and the current era of lying, abusive authority. Eastwood does not take pains to make obvious commentary about our modern world, but his point that Jolie’s character, a nobody in a city full of nobodies, was able to effect tremendous change in a world that seems overwhelmingly vile … well, that’s a message we oughtta consider between now and election day, y’know?

It’s one of those caveat emptor movies: If the allure of these filmmakers and a story that doesn’t go from A to B in the typical Hollywood fashion outweighs the flaws (four stars!), there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re really craving a satisfying totality (two stars!), this may not be the way to spend your Friday night date.