2006Director: Joe Roth
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco
et us revisit the racial politics of Natalee Holloway. A young, attractive white girl from America goes missing in Aruba, of all places. Stateside, thoughtful people are exercised in high dudgeon; one can’t miss the perpetual crawler: All-American Girl Missing. Larry King is on the story, and never really off it. Nancy Grace is breathless, incredulous. And then there are people wondering whether it is only young, attractive white girls that go missing in America. Demographics don’t lie; one race will always be overrepresented. But to whose detriment?
Richard Price’s 1998 novel Freedomland anticipated similar, albeit extant, themes of race and crime and the public perceptions and reactions toward them. Set in the fictional New Jersey township of Dempsey, Freedomland followed the events surrounding the putative kidnapping of a white boy by a black carjacker and the subsequent irruption of public hysteria. A housing project is locked down, recriminations and bald epithets are flung, civil liberties, naturally enough, are violated. What was striking about Freedomland was that it dispensed with the easy platitudes, interrogating the double standards of crime and race and our tendentious responses to their representations in media. It offered a candor about racial politics that was both refreshing and prescient.
Clockers, another Price novel adapted to film, was a taut and engaging street/crime drama as rendered by the idiosyncratic Spike Lee. Price also penned the screenplays for the Paul Newman classic, The Color of Money, and Mel Gibson’s kidnap thriller, Ransom. Not a bad resume. But I’m fairly certain that Price didn’t have Joe Roth, the director of America’s Sweethearts and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, in mind to helm the screen adaptation of Freedomland. It would be easy, then, to say that any of the movie’s faults lie with its direction. The answer may be yes.
The movie, therefore, begins inauspiciously: Brenda Martin, played by the proto-white Julianne Moore, stumbles into a Dempsey hospital blank and speechless, her hands bloodied. When her wounds are finally tended to and bandaged, she recounts her harrowing ordeal to Lorenzo Council (an unusually agreeable Samuel L. Jackson). Brenda is still not telling the whole story, and it takes an implausible amount of prodding and asthmatic histrionics by Lorenzo to get it out of her. When she eventually does, we learn that not only was her car stolen by a black man, but that her four-year old son, Cody, was asleep in the back. I was waiting to be moved by this scene, to be overwhelmed by its salience; instead, I found myself wondering when it would end. Moore and Jackson and the shaky camera turn tragedy into farce in ground-speed time, overshooting their mark and not stopping there. It quickly becomes apparent that Roth has no sense of emotional pacing.
Meanwhile, the carjacking may or may not have occurred by the Armstrong housing projects in Dempsey, Lorenzo’s turf, prompting the neighboring working-class (read: white) Gannon police precinct to rush over and cordon off the area in search of young Cody. This, no doubt, rankles the predominately (read: all) black lower class denizen that reside in the uniformly bleak tenements. Thus, it is Lorenzo’s task to manage the seething anger of community friends while helping the distraught Brenda find her son; Jackson does this with agitated reserve, and entirely out of police procedure, when he could fulminate (though he does fulminate later). On the other hand, Brenda’s brother, a truculent Gannon police officer portrayed rabidly by Ron Eldard, complicates things for Lorenzo and the investigation by punching and/or kicking suspects and generally being the type of movie cop we’ve come to expect.
All of this appears to be leading somewhere, particularly when Edie Falco’s coolly meticulous character, Karen Collucci, a women dedicated to finding missing children, enters the fray. One powerful scene, seemingly devoid of Roth’s hyper-direction, occurs between Moore and Falco’s characters. Collucci’s eyes are piercing, unrelenting, in attempt to elicit more information from Brenda. Then in comes Roth’s heavy hands with all this sound and fury and nonsense to rend it to pieces. The film oscillates from persuasive motive to ineffable conclusion; a powerful scene is followed by a heaping, inconsequential clunker, underscoring Roth’s utter lack of filmic economy.
But if this film is about anything—and race doesn’t get short shrift, thankfully—it’s about Julianne Moore. To say that Moore overacts would be a gross understatement. Her range runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime to the “so bad it’s too damn funny not to like.” Clasping headphones to her ears, her hands wrapped in medical gauze, she betrays an infectious autism that is sweet, wholly incredible, and possibly unintentional. In one of the film’s many confounding scenes between her and Jackson, both of them looking equally confused at what they’re being required to emote (or over-emote), Moore displays appalling Gannon idiom, a working-class Irish slang, while still managing to look earnest. It’s a riot. She is so hysterical that at one point Jackson’s character notes, rhetorically we hope, “If this woman is faking it, she’s in the wrong line of work.” Harrumph: She is in exactly the right line of work.
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, at the risk of sounding unfeeling, Moore could be nominated for at least four different Oscars for this maelstrom of a performance: Three supporting nods for her outrageous lead role. And she would deserve each one. Freedomland, incidentally, isn’t an irredeemably bad movie; I halfway liked it. There are ideas that are piquant here, and a more compelling form of semblance could have been imposed on this spoony mess, but the faults, in the end, lie with the direction and the obvious and unnecessary, on-the-fly re-writes. A smarter editor could have given this movie a limpid and tighter finish. When Roth left the actors alone, the movie has a nice touch of realism. But can we really expect the guy who directed Christmas with the Kranks to handle material of this nature more thoughtfully?
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-03-02