February 23, 2006

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FILM: Freedomland (R)
by Amy Diaz

Racial tensions, class issues, drug use, parental heartache and unsurprising “surprise” plot twists all go into the pot for the jumbly mess that is Freedomland, a discordant mash-up that seems to come from a lesser episode of Law & Order and a discarded plot line from The Wire.

Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) works his beat in Dempsey in a predominately African American housing project like he’s running for office there. He makes a point of knowing everybody’s name and tries to get the residents to see him as more than just a cop while at the same time working to convince his fellow officers to see residents as more than just potential suspects. While at the project one night to serve a warrant (and do so before the white cops from the neighboring Gannon, a predominately white blue-collar town, show up and make a bad situation much much worse), Council gets a call about a carjacking and goes to the hospital to meet with the victim, Brenda (Julianne Moore).
Brenda might be no different financially from the project residents, but as the sister of a Gannon cop she merits extra police attention, especially when she tells Council that her 4-year-old son was in the car when it was taken. The Gannon police department arrives en masse in Dempsey, locking down the projects and harassing residents. Council begs his chief to no avail to intervene and call the siege off, claiming that it will cause more problems than it will solve. At the same time, Council continues to press the increasingly unstable Brenda to tell him exactly what happened the night of the car-jacking.

She, however, becomes even more shut down and less willing to discuss it.

Enter Karen (Edie Falco), the head of an organization that searches for missing children. She approaches Council and eventually agrees to join the hunt for the missing boy, but, despite organizing a massive search of an abandoned state facility called Freedomland, Karen’s real detective work might be in her conversations with the suspicion-arousing Brenda.

Pulled apart from the tangle of other storylines, the characters played by Jackson, Moore and Falco are interesting and actually fairly layered. These are, after all, grown-up actors who know how to put a little oomph behind even the weakest of storylines and who, despite the scattershot approach to storytelling taken by the movie, nonetheless come to work and put in a good eight hours.

But while the film gets its money’s worth from the leads, we don’t get our money’s worth from the film. Freedomland is odd in that it is both completely predictable (with dialogue that seems to have come out of some sort of TV cop speak generator) and wildly erratic, as though it is a child walking in a straight line only because an adult is constantly jerking it back from running away. The plot feels like it was maybe written either in one all-night cram session (with the writer making fewer attempts at making sense the later it got) or piecemeal by dozens of writers, none of whom got to see the parts that came before or after. The side plot about Karen and her missing kid seems like it was glued on at the last moment with no real thought about how it relates to the rest of the story. At some points, the movie seems like it wants to focus tightly on the tension between Jackson and Moore — to study the relationship between the investigator and the victim/potential suspect. Other times, the movie seems to back up to try to capture the wide world of racial relations and the inequities of police response to crimes on white victims versus crimes on black victims.

What does Freedomland want to be when it grows up? Everything. But as every fairy princess crime-fighting astronaut supermodel president doctor finds out eventually, you’re much better off picking one thing and going for it. C-

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