Distilling a 500-plus-page book into feature length simply defeats "Freedomland," even though Richard Price adapted his own novel. The film concerns the racially charged firestorm that erupts when a white child goes missing in a black neighborhood. With the exception of Julianne Moore's performance as the wounded mother, however, the disparate threads fail to mesh in a meaningful way.

Distilling a 500-plus-page book into feature length simply defeats “Freedomland,” even though Richard Price adapted his own novel. Brimming with high ambitions but disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying, the film concerns the racially charged firestorm that erupts when a white child goes missing in a black neighborhood. With the exception of Julianne Moore’s hollow-eyed performance as the wounded mother, however, the disparate threads fail to mesh in a meaningful way. Despite a few raw moments, pic feels like a Lifetime movie with a marquee cast, with box office prospects looking equally tepid.

Occupying the same New Jersey towns as Price’s earlier novel-turned-film “Clockers,” “Freedomland” evokes comparisons to the Susan Smith case but has undergone significant changes in its path to the screen, including the elimination of a reporter who figured prominently in the novel.

In a sense, the movie peaks with its atmospheric opening. In 1999, a bedraggled woman with bloodied palms, Brenda (Moore), stumbles into a hospital and claims to have been carjacked at the nearby housing projects. Yet only under questioning by a local police detective, Lorenzo (Samuel L. Jackson), does she reveal that her 4-year-old son was in the car.

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

Lorenzo initially believes Brenda, telling his partner, “If this woman is faking it, she’s in the wrong line of work.” But he does a quick about-face, enlisting aid from a missing-child group, headed by a local activist (Edie Falco), to prove that Brenda isn’t telling the truth.

In his latest foray as a director, Revolution principal Joe Roth has trouble juggling the elements of racial discord with the underlying mystery. This results in a chaotic, uneven pace, with the narrative beats difficult to connect.

Price, too, appears to have struggled to bring his book to cinematic life, indulging in lengthy speeches that, as inertly presented, feel better suited to a stage play.

The lone exception is a riveting monologue by Moore, who — having waged a very different search for a lost kid not long ago in “The Forgotten” — forgoes any hint of glamour to paint Brenda as a damaged wreck, teetering on the brink of collapse. Jackson, by contrast, is left with a role that doesn’t rank among his top 10, and it’s to his credit the thinly developed character is as watchable as he is.

Almost all of “Freedomland,” in fact, operates in a kind of shorthand, devoting scant time to the barely capped rage seething in the projects or the dynamics between Brenda and her brother, who seems primed to explode. And while the media’s preoccupation with white victims and black perps is obviously a part of this volatile mix, that fertile ground goes largely untilled.

James Newton Howard delivers an intense score, but pic is otherwise as drab in both look and tone as its environs, which, coupled with Falco’s minor supporting role, remind us that “The Sopranos” was truly the best thing that ever happened to New Jersey.

Freedomland

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Revolution Studios presentation of a Scott Rudin production. Produced by Rudin. Executive producer, Charles Newirth. Co-producer, Richard Baratta. Directed by Joe Roth. Screenplay, Richard Price, based on his novel.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Anastas Michos; editor, Nick Moore; music, James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; art director, Patricia Woodbridge; set decorators, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, Carolyn Cartwright; costume designers, Ann Roth Michelle Matland; sound (Dolby Digital-SDDS-DTS), Tom Fleischman, Myron Nettinga; supervising sound editor, George Simpson; special effects supervisor, J.C. Brotherhood; assistant director, H.H. Cooper; second unit director, Charles Newirth; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at the Sony Pictures screening room, Culver City, Feb. 8, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Lorenzo Council - Samuel L. Jackson Brenda Martin - Julianne Moore Karen Collucci - Edie Falco Danny Martin - Ron Eldard Boyle - William Forsythe Felicia - Aunjanue Ellis Billy Williams - Anthony Mackie Marie - LaTanya Richardson Jackson Reverend Longway - Clarke Peters
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