The Price Is Wrong

 

Freedomland manages a seemingly impossible feat: It’s both turgid and overwrought. It’s a dreary piece of work, yet another dismal entry on the résumé of director Joe Roth, an only-in-Hollywood hack who is 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 damned near runs the studio (Sony Pictures Entertainment) that releases them. It’s his world — we just see shitty movies in it.

This offering comes with a better pedigree than most of Roth’s work: Richard Price’s 1998 novel Freedomland. And it boasts a high-caliber cast: Samuel L. Jackson as detective 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, a distraught woman who claims to have been carjacked while her 4-year-old son slept in the car; and Edie Falco as Karen Collucci, an activist dedicated to tracking down missing kids. The book was a rich, intricate, even haunting work — a would-be whodunit set in a messy place where black and white are always one shove away from drawing red.

No such luck with the movie. 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 nothing of this movie is unforgivable. Freedomland as it exists now is nothing more than shallow pulp play-acting in place of Price’s deeply felt tract on police brutality, racial injustice, sexual betrayal and bad mothering. Episodes of Law & Order swing bigger sticks than this candy cane.

The question at the movie’s center is whether Brenda, who claims that a black man in the Armstrong projects jacked her car, 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. Of course Jackson doesn’t terrify her; Brenda works in the Armstrong projects as 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.

But he’s a lousy cop anyway. When Brenda confesses that there was a child in the car, what had been 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. Then Brenda stops crying and begins shouting, less like a trauma victim and more like a mental patient off her meds. Freedomland contains perhaps one of the worst performances in recent memory offered by an actress with four Academy Award nominations — especially one clearly determined to garner her fifth.

The movie’s 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 have taken torches to their own homes. Roth knows nothing of nuance or subtlety, of how to say with a whisper what he can communicate with a piercing scream.

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.

Categories: Movies