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Changeling: Little boy lost

Oscar season is now under way with Changeling, a prestige film that goes fishing for awards with a vintage rod-and-reel. Clint Eastwood, having finally gotten World War II out of his system, directed this 1920s period piece about a Los Angeles single mom (Angelina Jolie) who gets put through the ringer for insisting that the boy returned to her by the LAPD is not her son, who mysteriously disappeared five months before. "A True Story," we're told before the movie begins, as if "Based on a True Story" wouldn't quite cut it. And Eastwood and scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski have obviously gone out of their way to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The thing is, truth isn't always stranger than fiction, and Changeling could maybe have used a little more weirdness, more ambiguity.

Jolie's Christine Collins lives through every mother's nightmare, arriving home one day to discover that her only child is nowhere to be found. But that's just the beginning of her ordeal, thanks to a police department that's far more interested in public relations (i.e., covering up its own corruption) than in justice. When she won't sign up for the happy ending they've scripted, Collins is dismissed and berated, then committed to a psych ward, where she's given the full Shock Corridor treatment. And Jolie, who's never seemed more vulnerable, wisely underplays during the movie's first hour, leaving her someplace to go. After that, it's "Cry Me a River" followed by "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." And if the movie weren't so cut and dried, if Collins doubted herself more, there might have been the opportunity for an amazing performance.

Changeling never leaves us in doubt whether this is Collins' son, but it does leave us in doubt as to what happened to her actual son. And that's where Eastwood starts to hit some of the deep, somber notes he's been reaching for. When a serial killer whose specialty is young boys gets apprehended, there's the possibility of closure. And Christine, along with the rest of us, pursues that possibility all the way to the gallows. But sometimes life withholds its pat resolutions, and every once in a while, if we're lucky, so does a movie. As always, Eastwood refuses to be hurried, letting each scene seep into our consciousness like the colors in an old tinted postcard. But the script isn't as subtle and supple as it needs to be. Changeling is basically a true-crime B-movie tricked out like an Oscar-bait A-movie. And the envelope please....

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