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The price of Freedomland

by Glen Baity

By the time you read this, Freedomland might’ve made back at least a portion of its production costs at the box office, but that money will almost certainly come from people who just wanted to see something in the theater this past weekend and would rather drive spikes into their eyeballs than watch Date Movie.

Sold as a mystery, the latest film by director Joe Roth (Daddy Day Care, Tears of the Sun) seems to be suggesting itself as a representation of America’s larger racial inequities, but this heavy-handed bore is a far cry from Do the Right Thing.

Julianne Moore plays Brenda Martin, a white teacher in a predominantly black New Jersey neighborhood. Freedomland opens immediately after a carjacking, in which a dazed Brenda (Julianne Moore), the apparent victim, files a report with Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), who sends out an APB when he learns that Brenda’s 4-year-old son Cody was, unbeknownst to the carjacker, asleep in the back seat at the time of the incident. Brenda vaguely describes the perpetrator as a black male, which causes the neighborhood to be put on lockdown while police scramble to find the stolen car and its kidnapped passenger.

As the searchers continue to come up empty-handed, the neighborhood’s residents become increasingly agitated about being treated as suspects without cause, growing suspicious of whether or not a carjacking took place at all. Tensions escalate, but the stock characters that play out these conflicts are paper-thin, only exacerbating the fact that the film, though it brings up some weighty issues, too often takes the easiest and most familiar way out.

The pitch doesn’t sound bad, but the execution makes Freedomland a resounding failure. The issues to which it pays lip service are sadly familiar ‘— police brutality, the scapegoating of poor African-American communities, and disproportionate media attention paid to white children in peril. But even if its source material had some clarity (screenwriter Richard Price adapted the script from his novel), the story in the film is muddled beyond comprehension.

Moore and Jackson both seem lost, their motivations perpetually unclear and their delivery frustrating, overwrought and unconvincing. Moore’s performance in particular is unnaturally forced, as highlighted in several rambling, unfocused soliloquies Price saddles her with. Putting aside the fact that her character is under tremendous mental strain, she comes off as irrational, childlike, and borderline mentally disabled, even in her supposedly lucid moments. The result is a character that is inconsistent and wholly unbelievable, especially after certain revelations toward the film’s end. It might be the most poorly-developed role Moore has ever played, which is remarkable considering how much time the audience spends with her in this film.

Jackson, hands-down the best ham working in movies today, overacts even by his own standards. His character here isn’t significantly different from those he usually plays (even Mace Windu always seems one breath away from shouting ‘“check out the big brain on Brett!’”). Coupled with Moore’s constant, breathless whimpering, their interminable scenes together are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

But by far the most damaging aspect of the film is its schizophrenia: Freedomland seems to be comprised of about four separate films hastily pieced together. It starts as a mystery, goes through a brief spell of psychological horror, makes a stop at family melodrama, and ends up as a racial morality play. The parts never gel together, and as a result the overarching story and tone are obscured.

Also confusing is the importance of the literal Freedomland. The long-closed orphanage near the beleaguered neighborhood is one of the sites at which rescuers search for Brenda’s stolen child, but it isn’t central to the film’s plot in any way, despite its conveniently allegorical name. It’s clear Price is using this completely inconsequential setting to point out some sort of irony, though like everything else here it’s imprecise and annoying.

Freedomland flails madly at a number of different social ills, in the process connecting with none of them. Price might have some meaningful commentary to offer, but it’s not articulated well enough to register. That’s what makes the film so hard to sit through ‘— after two hours, it’s plain that some statement is being made, but it’s so badly put forth you won’t feel guilty giving up on it altogether.

If you, like many others, wonder why Glen Baity can’t just pick good movies to review, why not e-mail him at glen.baity@gmail.com and ask?

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