This is my time of year when I’m usually hopping from theater to theater to catch all of the latest Oscar contenders. I love it! I live for GREAT FILMS! Bring it on! Give me your best shot!
Yeah, well, there are some very slim pickings this year, sad to say. Regardless, I’m going to blog about those films as I see them. And I just got back from seeing Changeling and thought I’d try to get my thoughts down while the movie’s still fresh on my mind.
Warning – lots of spoilers!
Well, this film just doesn’t work. The whole endeavor felt so flat. We sat in the back row, which I love to do so that I can also watch the audience. I could tell it didn’t connect with the audience, as many people seemed restless, shifted in their seats, and one woman sitting in front of me kept checking the time on her phone. At times, the film tested my patience, too. So I thought I’d try to identify some of its problems and see how my brilliant readers also felt about it.
* Lack of tension. This is yet another example of why I feel we’re in a screenwriting state of emergency because so many writers have no clue about the importance of good tension to make a film great. Mr. Straczynski made a number of missteps in this category. First, the kid. The kid suddenly disappeared. Later, everything is explained to us either verbally or though flashbacks with voice overs, all of which undermined tension. The story unfolds in a way that EXPLAINS too much after the fact, which completely deflates all the scenes of tension because it already happened and we already know the outcome. We’re not IN the moment WITH those characters hoping against hope it’ll work out AS it happens. Only then would we, as an audience, be persuaded to truly care. It’d also be far more compelling if Mr. Straczynski established the threat of the serial killer first and gave us dual storylines – one of the mother frantically trying to find her son and another of her son while he’s in custody of this serial killer, locked up in his chicken coop, and how he ultimately helped that other boy. That approach would’ve come alive to us and the audience would’ve been more involved. Other ways the film lacked tension – the serial killer was never a threat. We watched him try to skip town, which is certainly not as engaging as watching him try to kidnap children. He was never a threat to the police either or to the cop, Ybarra, who was snooping around his farm. I have to agree with Berardinelli: “The central problem with Changeling is that the lengthy secondary story of Ybarra's investigation and the revelations surrounding the serial killer come across as unnecessary appendages rather than important aspects of the story. Every time the movie strays from Christine and her crusade, the film loses energy. There's enough going on with the main character, who suffers grief at losing her son, goes through a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest phase, and ends up in direct conflict with the police department in a court of a law, that the introduction of a murder investigation muddies the waters. Changeling feels long and cluttered because it is long and cluttered.” Straczynski also established early the corruption of the police department. Reverend Briegleb tells Christine about the “gun squad.” Yet, these guys never play a part in the narrative and Christine is never put into a position where she thinks they may be trying to kill her. All of that “gun squad” talk felt like a setup without a payoff. Another aspect that robbed tension is that Straczynski protected Christine for most of the story by making her a media darling. In doing this, practically everyone in L.A. is on her side rooting for her, and it’s no surprise at all that others will fight on her behalf. Once she was locked up in the insane asylum, she also became passive the remainder of the story because by this point so many other people were fighting for her cause. Whose story is this? The people of L.A. fighting for Christine Collins or Christine Collins? Once you take the story out of her hands, everything falls flat.
* Weak scenes. Straczynski uses his writer’s pen more as a blunt instrument than a tool for a devoted dramatist. We had blunt, obvious characterizations. Good guys were good. Bad guys were bad. Christine Collins is a victim. Okay, we get that. So what? How are you going to make the experience of this story interesting? You have to add a few layers of complexity to heighten the drama. An example would be the scene in the house with the boy that’s pretending to be her son. What happens? He says “good night, mom,” or something like that. She blows up and tells him to never call her mom ever again. She screams at him. In the next scene in his bedroom, he’s lying in bed with his back to her strangely and pretending to sleep while she apologizes and tries to persuade him to confess that he’s not really her son. That’s weak to me. It’s all so very obvious. The boy’s character was cold and aloof and unengaging and so obviously not her son. A good dramatist would’ve aspired to give us so much more emotional mileage out of those scenes. The boy could’ve been more proactive to lie and convince her he’s her son. There could’ve been the subtext of desperation behind his words to convince her that would’ve added some much needed emotional layers to that scene. Yes, he’s pretending to be something he’s not but we’d feel for him.
* Christine had too much emotion and not enough depth. I thought, “how many more times will we have to watch Angelina Jolie cry?” I believe she cried so much because her part was underwritten and deflated of depth. Jolie didn’t have much else to do.
* The ending went on too long. He should’ve ended the story shortly after the hearings and the trial.
Have you seen it? What are your thoughts?