"Freedomland" suffers from an oversupply of drama and a shortage of credibility.
The new crime drama "Freedomland" is not being released but rather carried writhing, screaming and frothing at the mouth into theaters. A monumentally overwrought story of child endangerment, racial antagonism, mob violence and police brutality, it provides some of our finest actors the opportunity to behave like bug-eyed, tinfoil-hat-wearing loonies.
Watching the estimable Julianne Moore, Samuel L. Jackson and Edie Falco tie themselves into knots onscreen, one is reminded of the adage, "Sometimes genius is knowing when to stop." In this case, it would have been wise not to begin.
The story is set in the largely black slum of Dempsey, N.J. Dazed and bleeding, Brenda Martin (Moore) staggers to the emergency room. She was carjacked, she tells the investigating officer, detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson). A black man did it. And her 4-year-old son, Cody, was asleep in the back seat. Given the nature of the crime, the racial angle and Brenda's status as part of the police family (her brother is a detective in a neighboring suburb), law enforcement and the media go on full alert. Brenda is beloved in Dempsey, where she teaches disadvantaged kindergartners. She's also a former druggie telling a story that's less than entirely credible.
When the police cordon off the projects to squeeze out the alleged perpetrator, community leaders decry the crackdown and official indifference when black kids fall in harm's way. Soon the town is seething and set to riot.
Council is conflicted between his sympathy for the distraught mother and his doubts about her sketchy account of the events. With the aid of Karen Collucci (Falco), the head of a group devoted to finding kidnapped children, he digs into the case, discovering many ugly surprises.
Based on a complex 1999 novel by Richard Price, "Freedomland" struggles to compress 736 pages of densely plotted intrigue into 112 minutes. Subtlety is the first victim. Director Joe Roth (in a neck-snapping about-face from his previous film, "Christmas With the Kranks") hits every hot-button issue with a mallet. Price, adapting his own novel to the screen, retains monologues that rattle on for minutes, stopping the story dead. Roth presents these arias in unblinking close-ups and the crazed actors turn their volume knobs up to 11 as they rant and sweat and quake.
Whenever the tension boils over, Jackson's character pulls an inhaler from his pocket and takes deep, desperate drags from it. It took me a while, but I think I figured out what's in the cartridge.
*½ out of four stars
Rating: R for language and violent content.