Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The changelings in Changeling

In 2008, Angelina Jolie starred in the Clint Eastwood directed movie Changeling. The plot of the movie sounds nearly unbelievable, but all the major events happened in Los Angeles over the span of a few years starting in 1928. Christine Collins, a telephone operator supervisor whose husband abandoned her, comes home from work one evening and discovers her son Walter has gone missing. The boy is gone for five months before the police inform her Walter has been found in the Midwest. When the young boy returns on a train, Mrs. Collins says the boy isn't her son, but the police persuade her to "take the boy home and try him out for a few days." When she persists in saying the boy is not her son, the police, already suffering from the publicity of several scandals, take steps to have Christine Collins silenced.

The movie's script, written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, took a circuitous route before getting made, as many scripts do. Once it was finally bought, the plan was for Ron Howard to direct, but his busy schedule would have postponed shooting for several years, so Clint Eastwood stepped in as the director. Straczynski was very happy to hear Eastwood say that he wanted to shoot the script as it read on the page, which is a rarity for Hollywood scripts.

The two names that are above the title are Jolie and John Malkovich, who plays the Reverend Gustav Briegleb. While I liked both of their performances, I never forgot I was looking at Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. Movie stars don't often disappear into their roles completely. In some ways, that's kind of the point, since the business model of movies around the world is that people come to see the stars. There are many very good actors in smaller roles who I knew from other films and TV shows who do a better job of disappearing, including Colm Feore as the Chief of Police, Jeffrey Donovan from Burn Notice who plays the police captain who takes credit for returning the Collins child to his mother. Two other excellent non-star turns are done by Peter Gerety from The Wire and Denis O'Hare from Michael Clayton as doctors working with the police to discredit Christine Collins' claim that the boy is not her son.

There is plenty of credit to go around in Changeling, but I like to give special notice to Amy Ryan, who plays the small but pivotal role of Carol Dexter. I have been a fan of Ms. Ryan's work in several films and TV shows before this, most notably in her role in The Wire on TV and her film work in Capote and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. As much of her work as I have seen, I literally didn't recognize her here, so completely did she disappear into the role.

There are a lot of actors in the "He/She is always good" category. Amy Ryan is always flawless. I always believe she is the person she's portraying. Since she isn't the star, her job is often listening, which is harder than it looks. Her reactions are right on the money in every scene.

Ms. Ryan will be turning 40 in November and she's been working on TV since the early 1990's. Her window for becoming an overnight sensation has closed. But that doesn't stop me from counting her among the best actors in the English speaking world today. I'm so keen on her work, I've decided to add her to my Adopt-An-Actor list with Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Guest and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

It pains me to admit this, but I have only seen one episode of her most famous work, her recurring work on the American version of The Office, and I haven't her most acclaimed work, her Oscar nominated role in Gone Baby Gone, for which she won several awards from different film critics' circles. The movie is winging its way to me by Netflix as we speak. As for The Office, I'm going to pass. Humor based on the constant humiliation of a character has always been hard for me to watch.

In summary, I give a thumbs up to Changeling and recommend a whole bunch of stuff that features Amy Ryan, my newly adopted actor. Welcome to the family. Dinner is at 6:30.


Splotchy said...

Congrats on your new adoptee, sir.

Anne said...

Never seen the American Office but the Brit version works by painful honesty. The boss character is the most brilliantly realised and least sympathetic: Ricky Gervais has the mannerisms perfectly. It's excruciating, and he's the only one made a fool of. He is a victim of his own hubris. It's subtle, the whole thing is shot as faux documentary so he is the false narrator who fakes good.

So who in the American version is the victim?

There's that horrible old Brit canard that Americans don't get irony (it's so not true) but I worry that the storyline hasn't survived translation.

Matty Boy said...

The boss is played by Steve Carrell, an actor whose first big break was as a correspondent on The Daily Show. His biggest success on film is as the star of The 40 Year Old Virgin.

He is the main jerk, but the show has gone on for quite some time, and on the American version there are jerks aplenty.

Both versions rely on humiliation humor, and I just can't take it. On the original TV version of The Odd Couple, there was a stretch of shows in the middle of the run where the character of Felix was not allowed to have a shred of dignity. His character would push some idea to its breaking point and come off looking like an idiot again and again. I kept watching hoping it would get better (it did), but for a while it was a very miserable hobby.