Clint Eastwood was due for a dud. Changeling stacks up as his flattest film, his stumpiest film, since Blood Work, bookending his hot streak of Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and the Second World War diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Time once again to take it easy. Perhaps a partial explanation (or excuse) might be found in the fact — do I have this correct? — that Eastwood took over the project from Ron Howard (still a co-producer on it), and certainly it possesses a moral simplicity that would seem these days to be beneath his interest. Never beneath Howard’s, however.
An eighty-year-old nugget unearthed from the annals of the LAPD, fit for a remember-when newspaper story on a round-number anniversary, it tells of the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy on the day his working single mother, a roller-skating switchboard supervisor, was to have taken him to the new Chaplin picture (The Circus, presumably), and of the strong-arm attempts of the beleaguered police department, five months later, to palm off on her an imposter rounded up at a diner in Illinois, pressuring her, despite her immediate protests of unrecognition, to “take him home on a trial basis,” where she finds ample corroboration of her initial impression: he comes up three inches short of the boy’s latest pencil mark on the doorframe, and he’s now circumcised. The police-appointed doctor assures her that such changes are quite possible in the space of five months: “You’re in no position to be objective.” And after all, the imposter — the world’s oldest changeling — welcomes himself, for reasons of his own, into the mother’s arms. Doggedly gathering supportive opinions from her son’s dentist and fourth-grade teacher, and taking her case to the press, only gets her thrown into a psych ward staffed by B-movie sadists. Ultimate instrument of torture: electroshock.
The single morally complicating factor is that her lone champion, a crusading cleric railing on the radio against “the most violent, corrupt, and incompetent police department this side of the Rocky Mountains,” is played by the uncharismatic John Malkovich, donning a blond marcelled hairpiece and paste-on mustache. Angelina Jolie on the other hand, with Star Power on her side, in addition to Mother Love, in addition to Truth and Justice, campaigns for sainthood in a cloche hat and a hummock of crimson lipstick, accentuating her most grotesque feature — a pair of novelty- shop plastic lips — and providing the only dash of color in a frigid blue image. Validation, if not official canonization, will come in the form of four rounds of applause in open court. With inferior material, Eastwood’s “classical” style and deliberate pace (filling, and overfilling, his accustomed two-and-a-quarter-hour time slot) amount to little more than proficient hackwork. I’ve seen the same subject treated fictionally on the Lifetime Movie Network, but, with a younger age of son and a greater passage of time, more plausibly and ambiguously. The situation here, for all its factuality, is too ridiculous to be truly gripping. Too much so even to be minimally maddening.
Synecdoche, New York, when pronounced correctly, is an obvious play, not to say a meaningful play, on Schenectady, New York, the main setting of the film, where a regional stage director of high pretension and acute hypochondria gets left behind by his wing-spreading painter wife and their young daughter, then gets a MacArthur Fellowship — the “Genius Grant” — freeing him to reconstruct his life in a neverending work-in-progress inside a cavernous brick warehouse. In short — and it’s a challenge to keep it short — this is one of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s ongoing explorations of the human mind (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), except that for the first time he is also the director, a recipe for self-indulgence if not megalomania.
The early mundanities (perusing the paper at the breakfast table: “Harold Pinter died. No, wait. He won the Nobel Prize”) are often amusing, thanks in large part to the infectious dyspepsia of Philip Seymour Hoffman (heading a cast of indie all-stars: Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, et al.), and Samantha Morton brings a repressed sweetness to the role of the devoted and available box-office girl. But the narrative soon goes irretrievably off the rails, smashing through barriers of time and space, soaring off into fancy and obscurity, and viewers one by one are apt to be dropping by the wayside and waving at the film to go on without them. Not that the amusements altogether cease: e.g., the perpetually burning building, unnoticed by its occupants; the daughter’s diary, left behind in her bedroom, yet continually updated through all the years of her absence; and the inspired bit of casting whereby the Samantha Morton character is “played,” in the autobiographical theater piece, by Emily Watson. I’ve always had to work hard to keep these two actresses straight in my mind. (Three, adding Emily Mortimer.) Now I’ll have to work harder.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year, directed and co-choreographed by Kenny Ortega, is a candy-colored sequel to two Disney Channel television movies I had never heard of. (In what way, I’m left to wonder, did Gabriella change East High forever? And what’s the deal between Troy and Rocket Man?) Evidently intended as an anti-anxiety pill for growing tweens, it should work almost as well for hoary old nostalgists who mourn the illusory innocence of Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland musicals, and who will only need to grit their teeth for the vocal and dance styles. (The roof-garden waltz is most unobjectionable.) Two boys dashing out of the locker room in nothing but towels, straight through a girls’ volleyball game, and into the thick of a stage rehearsal, is about as racy as it gets. The well-scrubbed cast — Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman — looks unsettlingly like a collection of dolls. It would not be surprising to find them for sale, singly or as a set, at the Disney Store.