Freedomland (2006): Joe Roth’s Melodrama, Starring Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson

It takes an inept director like Joe Roth to get such a hysterical and unappealing performance from an actress of the caliber of Julianne Moore, and a rambling picture out of the explosive work of novelist Richard Price.

But that’s my overall impression of Freedomland, a movie that in the hands of a more competent director would have amounted to something more significant.

Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself in a difficult position when, out of the blue, a woman named Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) arrives at a New Jersey emergency room, claiming that a black man had stolen her car with her four-year-old son in the backseat.

Is Brenda, a single mother who works at the projects’ day care center, telling the truth Lorenzo needs to find out what really happened before the racial tensions in the predominantly black area escalate inro into a full-blown riot.

As accusations and counter-accusations are made, Lorenzo decides to lock the place down. A plain-clothes detective, Lorenzo works out of the Dempsey projects. He has a good relationship with the community because of his efforts to keep cops from other regions out of the place. But it’s a tension-filled environment, where one wrong word, one tiny gesture, might ignite the entire neighborhood.

News of the missing boy ignites an enormous furor in Gannon, a blue-collar, mostly white suburb adjacent to the projects. As a result, the authorities descend on the projects, leaving Lorenzo caught between community leaders such as Reverend Longway, outraged by the sudden attention to this carjacking case when crimes against black youths go unnoticed; and the police, whose members include Brenda’s brother, Danny (Ron Eldard).

Things brighten up midway, when Edie Falco shows up as Karen Collucci, the leader of a group of mothers who work with the police to find missing children. Falco’s performance, unlike Moore’s, is constrained, and she shines in one long and memorable monologue.

When we finally learn the truth about what happened to Brenda’s son, it’s expressed in long, excruciating monologue from Moore, which is grueling to observe and, strangely, doesn’t make her character more sympathetic.

Problem is, the audience is ahead of the story. As soon as Brenda’s distraught mother arrives, it’s hard not to presume she’s responsible for her son’s disappearance, since we are familiar with similar Susan Smith stories.

“Freedomland” is the kind of a message film that occasionally directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton would make. Lee, in fact, directed “Clocker,” which is also based on a Price novel. Indeed, occupying the same New Jersey terrain as “Clockers,” “Freedomland” evokes comparisons to the Susan Smith case but has undergone significant changes in its road to screen, among which is the elimination of a reporter character from the book.

The story is set in 1999, a few years after South Carolina Susan Smith drowned her two children in a lake and blamed a “black man” for their carjacking. Other similarities to the Smith story prevail, like the involvement of activist parental groups. You may also recall that, about a decade ago, a Bostonian named Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife and blamed a black guy, stirring the nearby black community of Roxbury to outrage.

Price’s story has resonance, not only from the Susan Smith case, but also from almost daily stories in the news media about neglectful or abusive parents. Well-intentioned, this drama, adapted by Price, should have been a much better film. But Price’s second collaboration with director Roth is a total misfire, a missed opportunity to make a racially-charged film; even the contrived and manipulative “Crash,” to which “Freedom” bears some thematic resemblance, is a more effective picture.

This is the fourth or fifth time in three years (beginning with “The Hours” and most recently in “Forgotten”) that Moore plays a troubled housewife or mother who has lost her child, but this is by far her weakest interpretation. It’s not Moore’s fault; she has been misdirected by Roth to spend most of her screen time either crying hysterically or acting insane.

Lorenzo’s character is also underdeveloped, disallowing Jackson to display his reliable dramatic abilities. It doesn’t help that the conception of Lorenzo is muddled; at times, you get the feeling that he is not a particularly good detective. Anthony Mackie’s role is too small to register, whereas Ron Eldard seems to be poorly miscast as Brenda’s conflicted police officer brother.

It’s never a good sign when a movie peaks in its first reel, but here, it actually happens in the atmospheric opening sequence. Rambling and disjointed, the film has several interesting narrative threads, but they never gel to something coherent. Some of the problems may also derive from the task of adapting a massive, multi-layered book into the running time of a feature-length script.

At its bad moments, which are plentiful, “Freedomland feels like a Lifetime TV movie; in the studio era, the story would have been made as a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis melodrama.

Joe Roth, better known as Revolution prexy, and the director of the equally inept if somehow more entertaining comedies, “America’s Sweethearts” and “Chritsmas with the Kranks,” shows strain in gelling the elements of racial conflict with those of the central mystery. The combination of Roth’s incompetence and Price’s self-importance result in a frustrating picture that’s visually dull, and in which every word and image are underscored blatantly–lest the audience doesn’t absorb its messages.