Director Joe Roth, primarily a producer who is one of the co-founders of Revolution Studios, apparently has never met a genre of film he can't screw up. His 2001 release, "America's Sweethearts
," has the dubious distinction of being the worst romance of Julia Robert's career, and 2004's "Christmas with the Kranks
" ranks as one of the most wretched Christmas comedies in memory. Roth is at it again with "Freedomland," an overwrought, self-important melodrama that proves all the more odious because of its failed attempts at being Oscar bait. That the film is opening in February (after plans for an awards-qualifying run in December were canceled) is a sure sign that the finished product didn't quite turn out as many had expected, and seeing it only confirms this suspicion.
When 37-year-old Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) stumbles into a New Jersey hospital, wounded with cuts on her hands and tearfully explaining that she was carjacked, asthmatic police investigator Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is called in to question her. During their conversation, Brenda finally admits that her four-year-old son, Cody, was asleep in the backseat when an unknown black man threw her out of the vehicle and sped away. Her claims immediately ricochet through a lower-class neighborhood in the projects when an extensive probe for the missing boy begins and the black residents of a nearby apartment complex are held under suspicion of the crime. As a potential mob situation permeates and Lorenzo works to get to the bottom of what really happened, their search eventually leads them to Freedomland, a dilapidated, long-abandoned children's facility that may or may not hold the answers to the case.
Written by and adapted from a novel by Richard Price (2000's "Shaft
"), "Freedomland" practically cries out to be taken seriously, touching on hot-button issues such as child abduction, parenting, poverty and race, but it doesn't do any of it well and finally bites off far more than it can chew. Whether faithful to the book or not, Price's screenplay is an overblown mess, complete with strained, unnatural dialogue and a plot course that starts as an intriguing mystery and ends as a patronizing version of a Lifetime movie with A-list actors. The bombastic music score by James Newton Howard (2005's "King Kong
") and frantic, ADD-prone camerawork by Anastas N. Michos (2003's "Mona Lisa Smile
") raise tension levels at the onset, but eventually wear the viewer down with a headache and a case of exhaustion.
The question of what really happened to Brenda's son, while somewhat predictable, helps to keep one's attention, but the second the truth starts to come out the whole film deflates before the audience's eyes. From there on, "Freedomland" drowns in a cavalcade of mawkish emotions and unrelenting preachiness. This is especially true of the picture's juvenile, even ludicrous study of race relations, covering many of the same themes and story points as 1989's "Do the Right Thing" and 2005's "Crash
," and verifying exactly why those latter two films were smart and thought-provoking while this one is as transparent as a contact lens. The way in which the strife between the black residents of the neighborhood and the primarily white police officials plays itself out is awkward, one-dimensional and invalidated.
The only thing worse than bad performances in cinema are strong performances at the service of a ham-fisted script that doesn't deserve them. In her second role as a distraught mother whose child is missing in less than a year and a half, Julianne Moore (2004's "The Forgotten
") delivers an emotional powerhouse as Brenda Martin. Moore bawls, whimpers, stutters, screams and shoots snot from her nose in every scene, and yet somehow makes it work. If news broke that the demands of the part led her to a nervous breakdown, it wouldn't surprise. Unfortunately, all of Moore's dedicated work is wasted on a thanklessly written character.
As investigator Lorenzo Council, who is torn between the neighborhood and people he affectionately keeps a watchful eye over, and Brenda, who he feels a curious connection with, Samuel L. Jackson (2005's "The Man
") is also an acting force to be reckoned withthat is, until he is forced into some climactic developments so sappy and overreaching they inspire, if not out-loud laughs, then certainly unintended smirks. Also of note in a memorable supporting turn, Edie Falco (TV's "The Sopranos") plays Karen Collucci, the earnest head of a group of mothers who offer their services in child abduction cases. One of Falco's last scenes, in which she segues from telling a heartbreaking story from her own past to trying to get Brenda to open up to her with the truth, is also one of the film's most cogent because it doesn't spell out its intentions or condescend to the viewer's intelligence.
In the course of less than two hours, "Freedomland" goes from being an engrossing, potentially provocative hard-boiled drama to a maddeningly misguided and self-indulgent "message" movie. The series of apparent endingsthere are manyfinally nail the coffin shut once and for all, each more obvious and patently sanctimonious than the one before. It isn't that "Freedomland" doesn't have anything on its mind, but that director Joe Roth and screenwriter Richard Price have absolutely no clue how to approach their hefty subject matter with any sort of dramatic restraint or thematic insight. Because of this, the film becomes the exact opposite of its intentions: shallow and utterly irrelevant.