Snake Pits, Snake Charmers: Changeling, Happy-Go-Lucky, Mary
By Fernando F. Croce

I eagerly await Angelina Jolie's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane phase. Maybe by then she will just play up her extraordinary, Circe-like ferociousness instead of trying to submerge it in dreary, Oscar-or-die vehicles like last year's A Mighty Heart and, now, Clint Eastwood's Changeling. Again playing a real-life sufferer -- Christine Collins, whose vanishing son precipitated a lurid frenzy in late-1920s Los Angeles that encompassed the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders -- Jolie looks impeccably stylized, Keane eyes and dark-crimson lips and a valley of chalk in between. Morticia Addams as a flapper. Yet somehow she's supposed to be an ordinary working-class gal, supervising switchboard operators at work and caring for her 9-year-old cub (Gattlin Griffith) in their modest bungalow. Since Eastwood's lighting is a foreboding mix of drained sunlight and chiaroscuro interiors, it's a matter of time before something horrible happens, and, sure enough, her son's disappearance turns out to be just the tip of Christine's bludgeon-job. Unpopular due to brutal tactics and frequent fuck-ups, the LAPD arranges for a "happy ending" by reuniting distressed mother with rescued child in front of a gaggle of reporters; only trouble is, the boy they found (Devon Conti) is someone else. The dastardly police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), busy grinning for the photographers, convinces her to take the kid home "on a trial basis." Evidence piles against the pint-sized impostor, but the police won't have it -- the case has been solved, it's the mom who's irresponsible or, worse, mad. Before John Malkovich's crusading radio-pastor can aid her cause, however, Christine's shanghaied to a scummy mental institution for the full Frances Farmer treatment.

The title suggests horror, and Changeling indeed often feels like an award-season version of The Omen, with some sequences involving a serial-killing pederast (Jason Butler Harner) shot weirdly like a Hills Have Eyes installment. As a director, Eastwood's always been a classicist fascinated by the rot behind myths, and his films abound in a country's moral pitfalls -- in its view of an establishment's refusal to own up to its errors, his latest film seems more closely related to the War on Terror than the explicitly anti-war Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. There is plenty of material for a study in maternal-spiritual dislocation (see Jonathan Glazer's Birth) or for a feminist tract ("If we are insane, they don't have to listen to us," Amy Ryan's straitjacketed streetwalker whispers). Unfortunately, Eastwood molds the avalanche of perversities into a pile-driver weepie that misses no interminable courtroom climax and spares no dead-man-walking spasm. How did this derail so badly? It could be that, just as Jolie can't be convincingly "normal," Eastwood can only get inside her character's struggling mind via the most rudimentary melodrama. Even when they're at the center stage, Eastwood's female protagonists are always mediated by a male eye -- think of William Holden contemplating Kay Lenz in Breezy, or Eastwood himself reacting to Jessica Walter (Play Misty for Me), Meryl Streep (Bridges of Madison County), Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby). With Jolie by herself in front of the camera, Eastwood just alternates between the snake-pit hose and the sanctimonious "noble-victim" close-up. It may be no coincidence that the actress' best scene finds her facing a gnarled authority figure, trying her godamndest to know when to smile and when to scream.

*

"Suffering turns beautiful when anyone bears calamities with cheerfulness," Aristotle said. Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the protagonist of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, surely heard him. Kind of a lanky, toothy stork, she teaches primary school, bounces on trampolines, and is miraculously unconcerned about being 30 and single in a city like London. Forever guffawing and wrapped in rainbow sweaters and noisy bracelets, she floats through life as if listening to Eric Idle singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" with invisible earphones. Getting her spine snapped at the chiropractor's office summons up bubbly double-entendres, the worst travail is met with a chirpy "blimey!" -- depending on the beholder, Poppy is either Audrey Hepburn reincarnated or Gena Rowlands telling the kids to play dying swans in A Woman Under the Influence. More often pushing his characters under overcast skies, Leigh here defends his heroine's right to walk on clouds, though not without criticism: She pulls out The Road to Reality at a bookstore, and immediately puts it back ("won't be going there"). Her angry driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) is her foil, a misanthrope who sees only "disease and fear" and whose cyanide is as ardently felt as Poppy's sunshine. The beauty of it is that Leigh doesn't just favor one stance over another, but rather looks on as two human beings find their worldviews (equally extreme, equally passionate) rattled by their encounter. Leigh's most visually beautiful picture since Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky is all about the clashing and connecting of such emotional biospheres. Hawkins's gangly chatterbox may appear unsinkable, yet, to judge from the final overhead crane shot which re-imagines her as a spec persistently rowing in the void, her optimism marks a precarious but invaluable space.

*

Unreleased since its 2005 premiere, Abel Ferrara's Mary begins where The Passion of the Christ ended, a divine resurrection illustrated via a ponderous mise-en-scène. Mel Gibson may settle for bronzed cinematography and hushed readings, but Ferrara quickly and purposefully exposes the mimesis of a religious epic -- the production wraps, the filmmaker (Matthew Modine) himself is wearing Jesus's robes, it's an "art-house blockbuster" wannabe called This Is My Blood. Cast and crew return to New York, but the actress playing Mary Magdalene (Juliette Binoche) is stuck with her character's emotions and proceeds to the Holy Land. Binoche's grave Jerusalem pilgrimage fascinates a somber talk show host (Forrest Whitaker), whose detached standpoint gives way to dolorous spiritual frenzies. Increasingly impressionistic, Mary blends parodies of biblical films, evocative dissolves and Godardian layering of art objects on monitor screens. It's stylistically sophisticated and emotionally visceral: Under Ferrara's scrutiny, these wanderers and doubters and sinners (and the actors playing them) appear utterly naked. At its heart is Binoche, whose character compares intriguingly with this week's two other heroines. Neither an emblematic punching bag like Jolie's Christine nor an enchanted dervish like Hawkins's Poppy, she shares their mix of performance and being -- a combination inescapably connected to the character's position as an actress, but, more importantly to Ferrara, evident in all of the film's seekers in their search for the "courage to be fully human."


Reviewed November 5, 2008.

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