At the press conference following today's New York Film Festival screening of Changeling, a critic in the audience asked director Clint Eastwood about his choices to make two movies in a row about women standing up for themselves, following a career of tough-guy roles. And while Eastwood's latest is, again, the story of a woman finding her inner strength, he doesn't have nearly the same success with Changeling's Christine Collins that he did with Million Dollar Baby's Maggie Fitzgerald. Gorgeous to look at and stirring in parts, Changeling is a dressed-up period piece with nowhere to go, a cipher masquerading as a heartfelt piece of work.

None of the blame, as it turns out, lies with Angelina Jolie, who has been a celebrity so much more than she's been an actor lately that we've forgotten how powerful she can be. Wraith-thin, with her loose 20's-style dresses hanging from her bony shoulders, Jolie's Christine is a weak outsider from the very start, living alone with her son Walter and working as a manager at the telephone company. She's wrecked entirely when Walter disappears one day, but things really go awry when, five months later, the police return to her a boy whom she know instantly is not her son.

Convinced to take the kid home on a "trial basis," Christine futilely pleads her case to the cartoonishly wicked LAPD, personified by Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), a cop desperately trying to avoid the bad publicity. Assisted by a fervent anti-cop preacher (John Malkovich), Christine goes public with her case, and is immediately thrown into the psych ward for her trouble. The whole thing blows up from there, with protests in the streets and a top lawyer hired pro-bono, and eventually a criminal's confession that finally starts to prove Christine correct.

Jolie weeps and screams her way through scene after scene, committing herself fully to a character who never emerges as a real person, just a devoted mother brought to the brink. Amy Ryan is sparky and provides some of the movie's few laughs as a fellow psych ward inmate, and Jason Butler Harner is chilling as the serial killer who emerges halfway through the film and leads Christine to the truth about her son. But the supporting characters, like Christine, are merely pieces moved around the motions of the script, playing their part and then getting shuffled off so we can watch Angelina cry some more.

As the movie wraps itself up in constant prologues, stretching out the two-and-a-half hour running time, a movie that should have been taut and vicious becomes a meandering, sentimental period piece, a strange place for Eastwood to wind up. It's good but not great, pretty but flat, and compared to some of the other work that has come down the NYFF pike, simply out of place.

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