Power Still Corrupts 

Crooked cops get exposed in Clint Eastwood's bizarre Changeling, and rehash familiar loyalty issues in Pride and Glory.

The first hint that Clint Eastwood's Changeling is not going to be run-of-the-mill awards bait occurs when Angelina Jolie uncovers the telltale penis. Up to that point, about thirty minutes into the movie, Jolie has been busily emoting as Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who comes home from work at the telephone switchboard one Saturday evening to find her nine-year-old son has vanished. The police department returns little Walter a few months later — only it's not the same kid. The cops assure Christine that she's merely overwhelmed, but her misgivings are confirmed when she measures her boy and finds he's three inches shorter than when he left, and has diminished several centimeters in another location. "You're circumcised," she whispers, staring accusingly into the bathtub. The lad can only cringe, having been initiated at an early age into the ranks of men who have disappointed Angelina. He rarely speaks again.

This is far from the last bizarre moment in Changeling. Say what you will about Eastwood's work here, but only a director of his reputation and confidence could make a movie this brazenly batshit. Without revealing too many of the film's twists, I can mention that the script, written by J. Michael Straczynski from true events, incorporates Tommy-gun-wielding crooked cops, murderous drifters, a Gothic mental asylum, shallow graves, and Canada. It is never any good — all its events are treated with dour good taste — but it has the courage of its loony convictions. It is the perfect match of story, director, and performer to create something richly absurd.

The most consistent element in the picture is Jolie, who for some years now has been laboring under the impression that the path to another Oscar lies in steely reserve punctuated by bouts of crying and screaming. She soldiers on in this vein, undaunted by any obstacles the story throws in her way. For a brief juncture, as her replacement son grins cheekily at her in the backseat of a squad car, Changeling threatens to become a sinister parody of those heartwarming movies where an incorrigible urchin worms his way into the heart of a resistant adult. But after the bath-time fiasco, Christine's dogging of the cops is redoubled, with the aid of a crusading Presbyterian minister (John Malkovich, sporting a pencil mustache that turns him into a dead ringer for Vincent Price). And then the cops, sensing that their ruse is threatened, toss her into the psych ward.

The movie joins her there. It dumps its already-odd narrative for dual remakes of The Snake Pit and In Cold Blood — not in combination, mind you, but parallel storylines, with their own moods and color schemes. (The tracks only merge in a repulsive hanging scene, in which the condemned man burbles a round of "Silent Night.") As Changeling lurches from Jolie enduring a cavity search to the one honest cop in LA encountering another child with a story about an ax-murdering drifter — seriously, the movie has an obsession with young drifters like I've never seen outside reruns of The State — it seems determined to become as lurid and miserable as possible.

Seeing Jolie in her asylum gowns is a throwback to 1999, when she won her Academy Award for Girl, Interrupted. She's just as fierce now, but she's lost all her beguiling playfulness, along with her humor. As for Eastwood, seriousness has always been his calling card, and after Mystic River, his apologetic examinations of violence have increasingly come to resemble earnest "problem pictures." This time, however, the problems are obsolete social outrages, emphasized at the expense of recognizable feeling. Changeling's climax, and Jolie's big validation, comes in a legal cross-examination that, taking its cue from the star, devolves into a yelling match, after which the courtroom applauds. I could only cringe.

Constructed almost entirely out of cop-drama clichés, Pride and Glory is a meat-and-potatoes thriller with very little meat (it does at one point feature a potato, though). Mediocre recent movies from We Own the Night to Street Kings have trod similar territory with similarly underwhelming results, and while Pride benefits from a decent lead performance by the always-dependable Edward Norton, it otherwise plods and lumbers its way through an overly familiar story about corruption and loyalty in law enforcement.

Norton is the emotionally damaged but morally upstanding detective who just wants to do the right thing, while Colin Farrell is the ruthless, ends-justify-the-means cop whose moral compromises have blinded him to the consequences of his actions. In between Norton's Ray and Farrell's Jimmy is Ray's brother Francis (Noah Emmerich), commander of Jimmy's unit and tacit endorser of their criminal practices. When four of Francis' officers wind up dead in a shootout, Francis and Ray's cop father (Jon Voight) makes sure Ray is assigned to the investigating task force. The maneuver backfires, though, as Ray soon comes across a ring of corruption led by Jimmy, who just so happens to be married to Ray and Francis' sister.

So it's about family/cop loyalty versus justice and doing the right thing, much like We Own the Night. And it's about intensely violent and corrupt cops pursuing their own selfish ends, much like Street Kings. It's also full of dialogue like "You don't know what it takes to do what we do" and "This ends tonight" and everything else you might find in the random movie-cop-speak generator. Norton is appropriately intense, but he's done this kind of thing before with more conviction. Farrell never quite conveys Jimmy's serious menace, and frequently loses hold of his American accent. Only one scene, in which an enraged Jimmy nearly takes an iron to an infant, has the suspense and immediacy that a movie like this needs to overcome its tired premise and milieu.

Director Gavin O'Connor piles on the New York City grit, and clearly wants to emulate lean 1970s thrillers like The French Connection. But his world never feels authentic, and the violence is sometimes too extreme and flashy. Nothing in Pride is particularly exciting or engaging, either. Somehow all the violence and double- and triple-crossing just ends up dull, and it's hard to care about who's betraying whom when none of the characters is remotely sympathetic or compelling.

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