One night in the urban housing projects of Dempsy, New Jersey, a bloodied Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) stumbles into a hospital screaming incoherently that she’s been carjacked by an African-American, and her 4 year-old son was inadvertently kidnapped during the crime. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is put on the case, and he attempts to crack Martin’s trauma-induced shell for answers, while noticing a tidal wave of racial tensions rising as media and police, from more affluent neighborhoods, descend on the scene looking for justice.
With Joe Roth credited as director of “Freedomland,” it’s tough to hold out any hope for cinematic significance. Here’s the man who gave the world “Revenge of the Nerds II,” and single-handedly ruined holiday 2004 with his abusive “Christmas with the Kranks,” and now he wants Oscar glory. Well, that was the plan before the suits caught a glimpse of the finished “Freedomland” product, and tossed it away into the wilds of a nondescript February release. Without the fanfare of award-bating media hype to act as a blanket, “Freedomland” is fully revealed to be the anemic, idiotically observed film that it is.
Beloved author Richard Price (“Clockers”) adapts the screenplay from his own charged novel, and the results are a mess. It’s unclear whether that’s due to Price’s inability to condense his work into screenplay form or Roth’s absence of filmmaking skills (which is an argument for another time); however, what’s left on the screen is a jumbled grab at investigating racial injustice, the eternal three card monte game of the mind, and a procedural drama with angry, bitter cops. In Price’s book, the focus was tag-teamed between the Council character and a white newspaper reporter. The script deletes the reporter character completely, leaving the action on Council and his dealings with the wildly tempered Martin, while also making some time for random fringe characters that Roth only pays mild attention to. In trying to keep the scope of his novel breathing before the cameras, Price has written a lopsided film, made even worse by Roth destroying any whiff of nuance that might have survived the written journey to the screen through his lumbering, poorly managed attempts to cover all of Price’s ideas.
Through Roth, “Freedomland” is a fragmented tale that attempts to highlight the performances over the story. Surely this is Samuel L. Jackson’s best work in a long time. The actor gives a performance that illustrates the strain and chaos of the central drama distinctly, without resorting to an explanation of his feelings or motivations at every step.
The same cannot be said of Julianne Moore, who wields her portrayal of Brenda Martin with all the delicacy of an Uzi with the trigger locked in the fire position. As an actress that would never turn down a chance to play a complete loon, Moore gives herself over to grandstanding, and Roth encourages her (through long, show off takes) to get as hysterical as possible, taking a Superman-sized leap past anything resembling a truthful portrayal of a splintered soul. Moore is all tears and screaming here, and the performance wears out its welcome fast, pushing the audience away when Roth’s intended effect is to get the viewers in deep with Martin as her tale of abduction is broken down into little pieces. Moore is an intensely talented actress, but without a proper direction, she can all too easily propel herself to Mars with her overacted hysteria.
“Freedomland” is more sure-footed as a police procedure drama than a commentary on racial conflicts, helped by a sneakily good (and brief) turn by Edie Falco as a missing child advocate who wants to get to the truth of the kidnapping as much as Council. The rest of the picture relies too lazily on cartoonish moments of bigotry, ending with a flat-out riot to sell the feeling of contempt between the white cops and the black project residents. Roth often goes too far to detail very simple themes, embracing obnoxiously heavy-handed staging to allow his actors their chances at melodramatic posturing. “Freedomland” once had powerful things to say in the post Susan Smith world that Price wrote about in 1998, but in 2006, the tensions have been processed into a drab, uninspired, and coldly calculated film.Rating: D+