The Moore Things Stay the Same

Washington City Paper | February 17, 2006
Freedomland is a most amazing story of sorts. Admittedly, as adapted by Richard Price from his own novel, it is rife with tension and tragedy, featuring the overlapping tales of a racial powder keg of a neighborhood, a child unintentionally kidnapped during an alleged carjacking, and a mother made crazy with shock and grief. In the end, though, its much and often absurd ado goes nowhere and amounts to nothing. Call it the Most Amazingly Melodramatic Story of a ’Hood, a Kid, and a Mom Ever Told.

Directed by Joe Roth, whose last project was Christmas With the Kranks, Freedomland pairs the increasingly unreliable Samuel L. Jackson with Julianne Moore, who, after her turn in 2004’s similarly themed The Forgotten, seems to be following up her depressed-’50s-housewife run with a mother-who-might-be-nuts series. Roth emphasizes in the opening credits that this film is going to be urban-tough: To the accompaniment of a thumping beat, we get scenes of kids playing basketball at night, steam coming out of a grate, and even the silhouette of a tomcat. A group of women with candles parades down a street. And most important, Brenda (Moore) is walking around in a disheveled daze, eventually making her way to a hospital, where she leaves a bloody handprint after opening the ER’s door.

At the same time, Lt. Lorenzo Council (Jackson) is on patrol, chatting easily with the residents of a project in the almost exclusively black Dempsey, N.J. Lorenzo’s goal of trying to find and talk some sense into a kid who missed a hearing for a minor marijuana charge is interrupted when he’s asked to take Brenda’s carjacking case. He’s gentle until she finally stammers that her 4-year-old son was in the car. Then, naturally, he flips out and starts yelling questions at the sobbing mom. He pursues the case furiously, but with Brenda unwilling to give up more details and acting erratically—say, slapping her hands on her forehead or against a wall—Lorenzo quickly concludes that the white girl ain’t right.

Brenda has a brother on the force, too: Danny (Ron Eldard), who also yells at her, asking her if she’s back on crack. (Aha!) He pleads for the return of her son on TV, beats the crap out of an innocent man—and then disappears for the rest of the movie. And because Brenda said the crime took place in Dempsey, where she works, and not Gannon, the predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where she lives, the residents of the project are put on lockdown. Not for the night, but for a few days, which one man points out has never happened before, even after the multiple homicides that occurred in his building. With the Gannon police taking over, the not-quite-believable situation inevitably escalates into a riot.

Somewhere within Freedomland lies a gripping story, snippets of which the filmmakers manage to do justice to. The truth about the clearly fucked-up Brenda and her missing child remains in question until the end, and the treatment of black-on-black versus black-on-white crime is actually thought-provoking. And when the search for Brenda’s kid is aided by a volunteer group devoted to finding missing children (that candlelit parade from the beginning), the movie is at its best: Edie Falco, no longer Soprano-glam, delivers a fantastic performance as the group’s subtly intense, shrewd, and heartbroken leader, who gets crucial information out of Brenda.

Moore, meanwhile, matches Jackson and Eldard in underachieving and overreaching, fading in and out of a Jersey accent and generally making her crazy-loon/white-trash character more laughable than sympathetic. It doesn’t help that Price’s script is also loaded with speechifying and treacle. And unlike his last self-adaptation, the similarly themed Clockers, this story leaves most of its subplots unaddressed. If you must know Freedomland’s mystery, don’t complain that you weren’t forewarned: A key clue is the statement “If you go, you’ll be sorry.

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