In film version of Freedomland, a lost opportunity
By Leonard Quart
Bronx-born Richard Price is one of our best urban novelists and a skilled scriptwriter as well (he was nominated for an Oscar for The Color of Money). He writes muscular, metaphoric prose and has a keen ear for smart, raw colloquial talk, and a sharp eye for urban settings, from seedy bars to chaotic municipal hospitals.
Price adapted Freedomland from his character and plot-packed, bestselling 1998 novel of the same name. The film opens with a bedraggled and bloodied white woman named Brenda Martin (a deglamorized Julianne Moore) staggering into a Dempsey, New Jersey emergency room. Her claim that a black man stole her car with her four-year-old son in the backseat sets in motion a racially charged conflagration between the predominantly black, poor, and resentful housing project inhabitants of Dempsey and the brutally heavy-handed police of its blue-collar white neighbor, Gannon.
But the film cares much less about exploring the nature of urban racial tension than about the search for Brendas missing son and the state of her blasted psyche. The investigation is led by Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), an asthmatic and worn, but dedicated detective who is the respected, unofficial mayor of the projects. His dual loyalties to both the angry project dwellers and to his professional role as a detective (he maintains a race-blind commitment to keeping people out of harms way) put him precariously in the middle of the roiling conflict between the two. His overly intense involvement in the case seems to stem from a desire to redeem himself for failing his son during a dark period in his own life.
Freedomland is a film with ambitions, without the capacity to realize them. Its two stars earnestly struggle to capture the nature of their more than one dimensional characters, but their performances are monochromatic, rarely displaying any emotional nuance. The film also contains too many static, writerly sequences where the actors deliver lengthy, articulate Price-style monologues that drain the film of cinematic energy.
The prime weakness of the film, however, lies in its direction. Its director is Joe Roth a prime Hollywood power broker whose directorial credits range from such works of high art like Revenge of The Nerds to Christmas with the Kranks. He demonstrates that he hasnt lost his golden touch here, turning Freedomland into a film without a scintilla of subtlety.
Much of the films action is revved up with a pounding score, a great deal of angry, noisy emoting, and some rapid cutting in the riot scenes. There is also an emotionally manipulative and tedious search scene for the missing boy in the derelict childrens home, Freedomland (modeled after the nefarious Willowbrook State School), where generations of children were mistreated. And the world of the projects is left unexplored barely scratching the surface of its many occupants who pass through the film.
Prices sweeping novel displayed profound emotional concern about the fate of his characters and the violent, fragmented world they inhabited. In the film version, the urban world has no resonance, and the characters that are foregrounded are expressive without coming alive.
So few Hollywood films have dealt seriously with this milieu, its a shame that Freedomland misfires.