Freedomland

February, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Joe Roth

Starring:Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, and William Forsythe

It’s hard to do something really well when you’re not very good at it - and even harder when that something involves making movies. Joe Roth, one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, turns director here, teaming with author Richard Price to bring this adaptation of Price’s crime novel of the same name to the screen. They enlisted a fine group of actors for the project, including Samuel Jackson, Julianne Moore and Edie Falco. Unfortunately, the results demonstrate that good producers do not necessarily good directors make and that novelists aren’t always able to convert one art form to another. More importantly, Freedomland proves once again that A-list acting talent doesn’t guarantee a result of the same quality. Wildly uneven performances, inexplicable plot devices and meandering continuity bury some individual scenes of remarkable effectiveness here, turning what could have been a serious examination of deeply embedded racial perceptions into something destined only for late night cable television. What a disappointment; what a waste.

Moore plays Brenda Martin, an Anglo daycare worker who wanders into a hospital near the large New Jersey housing project where she works bearing blood-stained hands and a car-jacking story involving her 4-year old son Cory. Veteran project-cop Lorenzo Council (Jackson) is assigned to the case, which threatens to pit a largely white urban police force against the all-black residents of the apartment complex where the car-jacker is believed to live. When Cody isn’t immediately found, a group of volunteers headed by Karen Collucci, (Edie Falco) agrees to help Council conduct a search for the boy in a nearby abandoned youth facility called Freedomland. But as Brenda repeats the details of Cory’s abduction, discrepancies emerge which lead Council to suspect he’s dealing with something more sinister than simple auto theft and he uses Collucci’s experience as the mother of a long-missing child herself to elicit what really happened to Brenda and her son. 

Freedomland situates this highly-focused piece of detective work in the midst of a subplot involving the forced sequestration of the project’s entire population, which produces a racial stand-off between white authorities and the project’s black inhabitants. Over-using profanity and racial epithets, Ross and Price play a badly conceived “race card” in the middle of their  murder investigation, weakening the latter without doing real justice to the former. Despite the presence of an exceptionally nasty white cop, (a nifty job by the under-rated Ron Eldred, currently starring in “Doubt” on Broadway) and Council’s equally effective white partner, (played by the superb character actor William Forsythe) the racial confrontation scenes are amateurish, with one stereotypical African American character after another mouthing lines we’ve heard all too often in other movies. The result?  Some glaringly artificial violence that not only detracts from the principal story line, but weaken the film’s overall credibility as well. 

Yet in the midst of all this randomness & mediocrity, Ross & Company  manage a few sequences of striking impact; Falco’s description of her life since losing her son a decade earlier captures the essence of obsession; no longer a grieving mother, Collucci has become a compulsive hunter, abandoning her husband and two other children while trying to locate her missing child. Falco provides this personal history to Brenda in a flat, emotionless cadence with such chilling self-detachment that its eerie candor triggers the reaction in Brenda that Council intended. When she finally blubbers her way through an even more complete recitation of the events surrounding Cody’s  disappearance, Moore beautifully conveys the complexity Price surely intended for the bruised and needy Brenda. Moore’s one of the busiest and most interesting actresses at work in movies today, (44 roles in the last 14 years alone) always willing to push herself into new types of material. The results range from brilliant, (Far From Heaven, Boogie Nights) to banal, (Laws of Attraction). While her depiction of Brenda, a distraught, ex-junkie from a troubled blue collar family is uneven, Moore delivers a pair of small miracles in her first and last confrontations with Council. Yet these highpoints are lost like tiny yolks in a big pool of theatrical albumen; most of Moore’ screen-time only provides the same type of overwrought tripe found in the balance of the script. As for Jackson, he begins his depiction of Council with yet another repeat of the actor’s typical barking dog hysteria, but then manages, in a few brief scenes with his incarcerated son, to show the audience a detective whose own painful life experiences just might make him  exceptionally well suited for the job he has. 

Price’s previous novels, (The Wanderers, Clockers, et al) have  provided a painfully accurate worm’s eye-view of ghetto life, replete with its daily frustrations and dispiriting prospects. But his script for Freedomland attempts to tell a personal story of the price to be paid for self-delusion by burying it inside a much larger and totally unfocused one about the agony growing up poor, black and badly educated. This gifted writer succeeds only in creating another filmed trip to the minority community made disturbingly banal by its lack of clarity and purpose. A really gifted director might have been able to bridge the tension between these two storylines, but Roth doesn’t demonstrate the skill necessary to get the job done. A sporadic director of unexceptional comedies, (Christmas with the Kranks, America’s Sweethearts) the director is painfully out of his depth with this material.

Last month, The New York Times asked its leading film critics to describe their favorite movie scenes of 2005. The result made for interesting reading, since it gave those four reviewers the opportunity to highlight tiny pieces of excellence audiences might have otherwise overlooked. Freedomland has a couple of moments worthy of that sort of respect, but you have to sit through 112 minutes of mostly off-putting nonsense to experience them, making it a race not worth running.  

 

   

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