Freedomland, from the novel by Richard Price, comes with a script by Price himself. It stars Samuel L. Jackson as Lorenzo Council, a police detective in the fictitious town of Dempsy, N.J., and Julianne Moore as Brenda Martin, the victim of a carjacking that Council is investigating. Jackson and Moore are two of the strongest stars in Hollywood. Price has plenty of good screenwriting experience. And Freedomland has a strong supporting cast: Edie Falco, William Forsythe, Ron Eldard, Aunjanue Ellis, Anthony Mackie and others. It’s surprising, then—and even a little sad—to find that the movie is a noisy, disheveled mess with no dramatic momentum and not a memorable shot or line of dialogue.
The movie opens with Brenda stumbling dazed into the Dempsy hospital, with the palms of her hands cut and bleeding. When Lorenzo comes to investigate, she says she was driving through the park that separates predominantly African-American Dempsy from the mainly white (also fictitious) town of Gannon, where Brenda lives. A black man pulled her from the car, she says, threw her to the ground (where broken glass cut her hands) and drove off with her 4-year-old son Cody in the back seat.
With a white victim and a black perpetrator, the carjacking becomes a flashpoint for racial tensions between Dempsy and Gannon. The Gannon police, including Brenda’s hotheaded cop brother (Eldard), invade Dempsy and blockade the housing project where they believe the unknown carjacker is hiding. The Gannon cops seem inclined to railroad any handy black man they can find, and the anger and resentment of Dempsy residents threatens to explode.
Lorenzo, meanwhile, has nagging doubts. Why did it take several minutes of tactful but persistent questioning before Brenda mentioned her son? Shouldn’t that have been the first thing out of her mouth? Why did she greet Lorenzo with apparent equanimity? Shouldn’t her trauma have made her recoil at least a little from the sight of a black man, even a cop? Lorenzo senses that Brenda isn’t telling everything.
There are secrets in Freedomland’s story, but they’re so anticlimactic and clumsily handled that they’re not much of a surprise; indeed, Price has mentioned the real-life story that suggested the book, which pretty much gives the game away. Suffice it to say Lorenzo’s right; Brenda is holding something back. But when the truth comes out, it’s artsy-fartsy rather than dramatic, an overwrought monologue that, expertly as Moore handles it, sounds like an acting-class exercise brimming with phony Arthur Miller-style poetry of the blue-collar masses.
But then, everything about Freedomland is overwrought. Director Joe Roth is an experienced producer and studio executive, but his directorial efforts have been few, and they range from the borderline-crummy (Revenge of the Nerds II) to the utterly awful (Christmas with the Kranks). Price’s sprawling 600-page novel is out of Roth’s control from the start, despite brutal editing that eliminates huge chunks of plot and whole characters (including the reporter Jesse Haus, which should have been a third starring role). The book’s dual plot of the criminal investigation and the escalating racial crisis befuddles Roth; he fails to distinguish any of the secondary characters, and he botches his big scenes. A major confrontation between demonstrators and riot cops is so poorly staged that Roth fails to conceal how few extras he has; it’s supposedly a near-riot, but it looks more like a loud argument among a handful of sports fans. Roth plays every scene at a raging bellow, drawing his actors into a shouting match with James Newton Howard’s feverishly thundering musical score.
Jackson and Moore at least have the know-how to cope with Roth’s direction, and they manage moments of dignity, if not power. But false notes abound. At the end, Brenda says to Lorenzo, “I love you for the way you’ve always talked to me.” Huh? Lorenzo has always talked like a good and decent cop, but nothing lovable. Like most of Brenda’s dialogue, it’s a stagy, actressy line and an off-the-wall moment that Price and Ross don’t prepare us for. As with the rest of the movie, they just hurl it onto the screen, hoping Jackson and Moore’s star power will put it over.