Freedomland manages a seemingly impossible feat: It's both turgid and overwrought, eliciting the shriek that fades into a yawn without anyone ever noticing. It's a wholly dreary piece of work, yet another dismal entry on the resumé of director Joe Roth, an only-in-Hollywood hack who's allowed to make movies among them America's Sweethearts and Christmas with the Kranks because he runs the production company (Revolution Studios) that makes them and damn near runs the studio (Sony Pictures Entertainment) that releases them. (He liked the company so much, he bought it!) Roth also used to be chairman at Disney, and directed the likes of Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise; since then, he's brought you The Animal and The New Guy for Revolution, its name by now surely intended as a sarcastic screw-you. Roth's is the cautionary tale with the inexplicable happy ending; it's his world now, and we just see shitty movies in it.
Here's one offering with a better pedigree than most of Roth's work: Freedomland, the 1998 novel by Richard Price set in the same New Jersey housing project as his 1992 murder mystery set amid the world of cops and drug dealers, Clockers, which Price adapted for Spike Lee's wrenching, if occasionally clumsy, 1995 film. (Certainly Roth has chosen more highbrow material than for 2004's Christmas with the Kranks, based on the John Grisham checkout-counter pamphlet Skipping Christmas.) And it boasts a high-caliber cast: Samuel L. Jackson as Det. Lorenzo Council, a father figure to even the no-goods living in the Gannon, New Jersey projects known as Armstrong; Julianne Moore as Brenda Martin, the distraught woman who claims to have been carjacked while her four-year-old son slept in the car; and Edie Falco as Karen Collucci, the activist who fronts an organization of moms dedicated to tracking down missing kids. The book was likewise a rich, intricate, and even haunting work a would-be whodunit set in a messy place where black and white are always one shove away from drawing red.
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The movie, though? No such luck. No one expects that a two-hour movie can capture a modicum of the complexities and ambiguities and tensions wrought by a nearly 600-page book, but to strip them away entirely and leave us with the hollow, meaningless void of this movie is unforgivable. Freedomland as it exists now is nothing more than shallow pulp play-acting as a deeply felt tract on police brutality, racial injustice, sexual betrayal, and bad mothering. This makes Crash, loved by those who thought it honest and messy, and loathed by those who proclaimed its views on race glib and superficial, look like the work of revolutionaries; episodes of Law & Order swing bigger sticks than this candy cane.
The question at the movie's center is whether Brenda, who claims a black man in the Armstrong projects jacked her car in the middle of the night, is telling the truth. There is nothing to indicate otherwise she walks into a hospital with sliced-open palms, bleeding all over sliding-glass doors, and seems suitably traumatized but Lorenzo doesn't believe her, because she isn't frightened by his skin color. This explanation comes off as silly and convoluted, a hack's shorthand used when the storytelling isn't working. Of course Jackson doesn't terrify her; Brenda works in the Armstrong projects, the only white teacher with the only white child in the school. There is no sense to Lorenzo's logic, only the assumptions made by a cop portrayed by an actor given lazy lines and nothing to do with them except speechify and, occasionally, explode (and reach for his asthma inhaler).
But he's a lousy cop anyway: Early on, when Brenda confesses there was a child in the car, what had been, for ten minutes, a murky and moody movie takes on the herky-jerky tone of an action picture, as Lorenzo stops soothing the victim and begins berating her for no good reason. Then Brenda stops crying and begins shouting, less like a trauma victim and more like a mental patient off her meds. There's a method to her madness, and Freedomland contains perhaps one of the worst performances in recent memory offered by an actor with four Academy Award nominations especially one clearly determined to garner her fifth. The entire end of the movie, which has more finishes than the Boston Marathon, seems constructed like an Oscar reel full of maniacal monologues; she tries like hell to fill her empty words with enough tears to flood a desert.
The movie is about as subtle as a club to the forehead, offering nothing more to the discussion of race relations than hot-tempered white cops lining up to pummel the black folks who've taken torches to their own homes. Roth knows nothing of nuance, of subtlety, of saying with a whisper what he can only communicate with a piercing, distancing scream. And Price is not blameless here: Whether he actually stripped down his novel to the barest, least functioning parts or allowed Roth to do it for him in exchange for the check, he nonetheless has taken part in the amping up and dumbing down of a provocative, evocative novel. They all oughta be ashamed or, at the very least, embarrassed.