Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where's the Beef?

The following column is reprinted from the December edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

It’s Los Angeles in 1928 and single mother and telephone-company supervisor Christine Collins (Angeline Jolie) returns home after work to find and makes the most horrible discovery of all—her nine-year-old son, Walter is missing. After months of a misspent and slothful investigation, the Los Angeles Police, led by a corpulent and corrupt chief (Colm Feore) and under heavy pressure from a crusading radio show clergyman (John Malkovich), announce that her son has been found in far off Illinois and, under the glare of photo’s popping and pressman circling, triumphantly deliver the boy. One problem though, the boy stepping off the train is not, despite a physical resemblance, the stunned woman’s son. The cops urge her to “try him out”, but as her protests mount, point man Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) responds by incarcerating her in the psycho ward, with the threat of shock therapy hanging over her next move.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski’s and director Clint Eastwood’s Changeling proto-feminist story is based on public records, and it’s set in a time period and city familiar to those who know L.A. movie crime stories like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, a setting devoid of honest men, a city and a police force brimming with moral decay. Jolie plays the one truly virtuous character, and Eastwood trails her like a golden-haloed heroine of some long ago silent film parable. Jolie in period costume is a truly iconic sight, and she delivers a delicate, even comely performance. The problem is the 78-year-old director’s classicist tendencies--the movie unfolds with a stately, methodical tone and proceeds with his assured feel for cinematic storytelling-- but ultimately it never bears down and scratches the surfaces beneath the readily apparent emotional and moral concerns.
Unlike, say, the histrionics of Mystic River or the intimacies of Million Dollar Baby or even the keen sense of reverse nationalism on display of Letters From Iwo Jima, with this latest effort Eastwood seems to stay far too content with polished (but surface) performances, the handsome production design of James J. Murakami, the bone-dry visuals of cinematographer Tom Stern, and his own directorial aversion to spectacle. As well-made as Changeling is, it suffers from an over reliance on a just-the-facts-m'aam recreation of the past and a slowly culminating feel of self-righteousness, somehow the filmmaker never gets around to truly stirring up the juices.
The movie also dithers in multiple directions, part mystery tale, part bad cop cautionary, part feminist ballad, part gothic chiller (serial killer Gordon Northolt-played by Jason Butler Harner—is also on the loose in the film’s periphery), and as well spelled out as all of it is, it still doesn’t prevent Jolie’s single minded performance from become repetitive rather than enriched by the expanded canvas. One hates to damn Eastwood, as fine a working contempo director today, with faint praise, yet Changeling is more admirable than affecting, more contained than disturbing, more passive than passionate. It’s an old-fashioned movie that just about rises above its own mawkishness and inherent stolidity. Rare as it, maybe Eastwood the filmmaker has crafted a well-made offering that is essentially a misfire-a sharply drawn shell that too firmly covers up its raw entrails. Jolie’s much vaunted turnabout doesn’t crack the shell either, it’s far too gilded without an iota of much needed grit.
While we are falling short of good intentions, let us examine the strange case of Oliver Stone and his weirdly discomforting new movie W, the remarkably straight-laced biopic of most likely the worst president in U.S. history, George W. Bush. When first announced, this teaming of Stone, the mad dog ideologue behind controversial wall bangers like Natural Born Killers, The Doors, or JFK, sharpened life slices like Platoon and Wall Street, or even surprisingly meditative ones like Nixon or Heaven and Earth, and good ol’ screw up George W promised more than enough fodder for friends, foes, and free-thinkers alike, with even the most disinterested observer imagining a goosed-up doozy of satirical dagger throwing, or an old-fashioned string-em-up filmic indictment.
Sorry. Neither overflowing with complexities or eye-rollingly gonzo, Stone’s picture is strangle placid, and, even more worrisome, bizarrely without depth or substance. Is it some kinda Stonesian black joke that he’s managed to make a movie that’s as every bit as superficial as our very own world leading bumpkin? Even more bewilderingly, the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer up any particular insights into Bush the man or Bush the President; it trots out a plethora of well known Bush benchmarks with the airy lightness of a romantic trifle, piling up vignette after vignette with an eyebrow stretched towards some overt Freudian father-son fission, a reoccurring fantasy sequence which (very) simply depicts Georgie Boy as a guy who wants to be adored by the faceless minions, and a batch of top notch character actors (Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, Bruce McGill, Toby Jones, Dennis Boutsikaris) all rolling out as the President’s oh-so-familiar playmates.
W is eminently watchable, although the end-all effect to an ever vigilant audience (waiting for the first real screw-ball to get tossed at the plate, a screwball that never comes) is eventual acquiescence-you finally wilt into the theatre chair knowing full well that the film (and creator Stone) are just going to keep on slicing up the malleable butter. As far as the rest of the principles, the usually reliable James Cromwell overdoes it as Papa Bush, while the always welcome Ellen Burstyn (as Barbara) is mistakenly shunted off to the side, leaving Elizabeth Banks as Laura at with the best effort as surface polishing. It’s up to Josh Brolin as Dubya, inhabiting the well known public figure without overt caricature and also without cringe-inducing deference, and Richard Dreyfuss, smacking his teeth as the creepy shark that is Dick Cheney, to give the film any semblance of testicular strength. It also points to what’s truly missing: the sort of high-fevered satirical bent that might have allowed Stone and his actors to indulge, even wallow, into hell-bent excessiveness, dirty, drippy salaciousness, or beady-eyed comic malevolence.
Disappointingly, more importantly, confusedly, W doesn’t come on like the second coming of Dr. Strangelove. Instead it trots out a comely, well-trodden tale, a paint-by-numbers remuneration of what most of us already know. It’s an entree into a cinematic abyss already recognized, an unblinking fable of a canonized misfit, a thoroughly oxymoronic undertaking. There’s simply no there, there. It’s as if Stone’s real agenda is to reel us in and let us drown in own complicity. In other words, you elected the guy boys and girls, let me draw your mistake on the blackboard again, and don’t worry, recess is right around the corner.

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