When Clint Eastwood is determined to be dark, which is just about always, not even the weather can stop him. His latest film, "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie as a distraught mother whose child was kidnapped, takes place in Los Angeles, where in real life the city is brightly, relentlessly, sunny 99 days out of 100. And yet for the two hours and 21 minutes of Eastwood's film, which encompasses years of dramatic time, mostly we get a muted palette evoking sunless skies. There are even some downpours meant to pound home the deeply troubling morality the film explores as it grapples with corrupt cops, psychopaths, deranged doctors and missing kids.
Weather, it turns out, however, is one of the few instances when "Changeling" deals in shades of gray. Like many an Eastwood picture, this one is deeply committed to manipulating audience emotions, although perhaps because the team of Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have had a hand as producers (Howard, maker of "Cinderella Man," was originally supposed to direct), the film feels extra refined, distinctly black and white -- with the occasional outburst of overacting and the constant feeling that the story has been expertly die-cast into screenwriting perfection.
Jolie plays Christine Collins, a telephone operator in Los Angeles who returns from work one evening to find her 9-year-old boy, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), missing. At first the cops can't help, but when they do, Christine regrets it. They find another boy who resembles Walter and try to pass him off as Christine's own. This is the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1920s, during Prohibition, and we are given a quick history lesson in its astounding level of corruption, which included murdering anyone who got in its way. (In short it is the LAPD.) Christine at first pleads, then complains, and when that goes nowhere, decides to fight back, with the help of a vocal community organizer, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). Determined to avoid more bad press, the police lock her in a mental institution.
"Changeling" is based on an obscure real-life incident related to an infamous and grisly mass murder of children in Wineville, Calif., which is now Mira Loma. The movie has the feel of a sensational newspaper article, and it's no surprise to learn that screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski spent a year mining local archives to find a mother lode of sparkling movie material, fabricating the dramatic details that weren't recorded for the public good. This amalgam seems about right, as many instances of Christine's battle to find Walter are more the stuff of fevered fiction than of reality.
When Christine, finally convinced the police are working against her, gives an impromptu news conference, it's on the steps of city hall, in the rain, where she valiantly vows to reporters to fight on. Later she will risk vocal chord damage by repeatedly screaming, "I want my son!" then willingly submit to shock therapy rather than give in to the authorities. (Her inspiration is a selfless prostitute, played by Amy Adams.) Later still she will throw the boy's suspected killer against a wall, repeatedly, demanding the truth.
Hysterical jailhouse scenes notwithstanding, Jolie and Eastwood have attempted to dampen the star's considerable radiance. At the same time, the movie neglects to substitute much else except steady bearing, a firm backbone and unwavering dedication. Like Malkovich's minister, Christine is one-dimensional. She's a saint, just as her son was before we lost him in a city-sized sea of brutality. Things happen to her, but her response doesn't seem to accomplish much more than getting other things to happen to her. Similarly, the villains of the picture are outright devils, including a psychopathic killer so craven he could run for national office.
"Changeling" is no bore. Eastwood, as always a proficient and composed visual storyteller, maintains a handle on his luridly gripping story until the third and fourth acts — and maybe a fifth: It's easy to lose count in this lengthy affair. It is at this point, however, that the heavy hands of Grazer and Howard seem to descend on the proceedings. Intent to satisfy every audience expectation and tie up every loose thread, the moody thriller morphs into a court battle pitting Jolie against the police, then another court battle pitting Jolie against an accused kidnapper, then a postscript on the search for Walter, and finally a postscript on the postscript. It's hard to believe these last sections are the work of Clint. They're simply too sunny to be his. (R) 121 min.HHIII S