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Has anyone else noticed that Julianne Moore keeps playing women whose kids go missing? In The Forgotten, her boy was grabbed by aliens. In Freedomland, which is grounded a tad more in reality, her kid’s sleeping in a car that gets stolen by a black man, inflaming racial tensions between the police and the residents of New Jersey housing project. Lucky for Moore, she’s got Samuel L. Jackson — loud and bombastic as ever — to help her find the kid and, hopefully, keep the peace.
But there’s no peace in Freedomland, a fractured attempt to dramatically explore (and exploit) race relations masquerading as a thriller. Director Joe Roth, a former Hollywood executive who fancies himself a director, makes one bad call after another. He strives to provide us a profound, sincere, meaningful experience, but instead gives us heartburn. The director of Christmas with the Kranks and Revenge of the Nerds II is attempting to traverse Sidney Lumet territory, but skill-wise he’s not even on the map. This movie’s thematic material is so far beyond Roth’s reach, you feel that even offering him a stepladder wouldn’t help.
Bad situation: Jackson and Moore
Adapted for the screen by Richard Price (from his novel), Freedomland is set in New Jersey, 1999. Detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson) rules the Armstrong Houses with a compassionate iron fist. It’s his province, we are constantly reminded, and its residents love, admire and respect him. He’s father bear, protecting his cubs, trying to steer them clear of danger and, hopefully, into a better life, one with laptop computers and new refrigerators.
The narrative begins on simmer, as Brenda Martin (Moore), a resident of the nearby, largely Caucasian middle class suburb of Gannon — and a beloved employee at the Armstrong’s preschool program — is attacked one night. Her car is stolen and she’s roughed up a bit, generating a sympathetic but routine response from Council. He leaps into high gear after she (belatedly) reveals that her 4-year-old son was slumbering in the car’s back seat. Making matters worse — Brenda is the sister of a Gannon detective (Ron Eldard, playing one single angry note throughout). So out trot the Gannon police in force, setting up a blockade to keep the Armstrong residents in lockdown until the child is found. It’s not long before the movie is ablaze in angry glares and accusatory stares.
The situation is combustive — and this one eventually explodes. But the potential power of the scene is diminished by clumsy handling by Roth, who botches the movie’s big moment. Roth directs this and other key sequences as though he were making a music video. There’s so much eye-jarring jump cutting, it’s as though the film were edited with a hacksaw. Price’s screenplay is loaded with double-barrel routine dialogue that makes the stuff on Law & Order sound like Shakespeare.
Nothing in Freedomland shocks or even surprises us, least of all the eventual location of the missing child. But the drama has a greater mission in mind — it wants to call our attention to the injustices still in place within our law enforcement system, to the not-so-concealed racism that lurks within society’s collective heart. Crash did the same thing — and did it oh so much better. Freedomland buries itself in so many clichÃ©s, it’s unable to dig itself out.
The cast pour their earnest little hearts into their roles, but it’s not enough. Jackson is loud, forceful, aggressive and, when he needs to take a breath, thoughtful. Then he goes back to being loud. He’s the Hollywood go-to guy for bluster. Moore — blonde, scraggly, with weepy red-rimmed eyes — stumbles through much of the film looking dazed and confused. At one point, she lets rip a prolonged soliloquy that feels like it would be better suited to an acting class audition.
Edie Falco plays the organizer of a group of mothers who volunteer to help find missing kids, and she too has a monologue. But hers is delivered with a nuance and eloquence missing from the rest of the film. It’s the one and only time Freedomland fully engages us. Otherwise, this movie resides in areas better known as half-baked and knee-jerk.