'Freedomland': The Crime Is in the Storytelling

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

"Freedomland" is that saddest of all things in the cinema, a great story poorly told.

Adapted by the novelist Richard Price from his best-selling 1998 novel of the same name, "Freedomland" has grit, realism and epic sweep, its story of a grievous episode in the housing projects and blue collar suburbs taking on the mythic heft of a Bruce Springsteen ballad. Like the best of Price's work, "Freedomland" is about characters who move and talk and behave like recognizable people, but who also become symbols of something greater than themselves.

Police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) and Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) are classic Price characters, at once messily human and iconic. As "Freedomland" opens, Council is walking his beat in the Armstrong housing project, where he is affectionately called "Big Daddy" by the mostly African American residents. Simultaneously Brenda, her hands covered in blood, shows up at an emergency room in nearby (fictional) Gannon, N.J., a mostly white working-class enclave. She's been carjacked near the Armstrong projects, and Council is called to interview her about the perpetrator.

Brenda identifies the carjacker as an African American man, and the police immediately cordon off the projects, creating a lockdown that threatens to erupt at any moment; meanwhile, Brenda tearfully admits to Council that her 4-year-old son was in the back seat of the car, a late-emerging fact that sparks the detective's doubts in her story. As the manhunt continues, with the Armstrong residents becoming increasingly incensed at what they see as racial profiling and gratuitous force, Council quietly pursues his theory that Brenda isn't telling him the whole story.

There is something about a movie written by Richard Price -- whether it's "The Color of Money," "Clockers" or, now, "Freedomland" -- that bears his stamp; he is a master of realism, with an acute ear for street and police vernacular. (When Brenda tells Council that her brother is on the Gannon police force, she says he's "on the job"; later, a cop says that an elusive suspect has gone "all-out rabbit on me.")

As a novelist and a screenwriter known for deeply researching his subjects, he also possesses an uncommon understanding of the subtleties of race and class. In "Freedomland," what starts out looking like just another ripped-from-the-headlines story (its most obvious inspiration is the Susan Smith story of 1994, but it also recalls the Bensonhurst and Rodney King riots) becomes much more complex, with tribal lines continually shifting. At first, Brenda looks like a stereotypical working-class white woman who, out of conscious or unconscious racism, conveniently accuses a black man; but as "Freedomland" progresses, those assumptions are challenged and even contradicted.

All of this is fascinating and would have made a fascinating movie if "Freedomland" were one movie. Instead, it turns into 3 1/2 movies, none of them fully realized. Midway through the first act, a third major character shows up: a missing-child activist named Karen Collucci (Edie Falco). She conveniently offers to help Council get to the bottom of Brenda's story and spearheads a search of the campus of an abandoned orphanage, the Freedomland of the title. It's at this point that Falco delivers the film's best scene, a haunting, mesmerizing monologue, but it's also where the movie undergoes one of several odd shifts in focus and tone. Soon, what could have been an unusually smart police procedural becomes a sprawling, overwrought melodrama that itself morphs into a sort of spiritual romance.

There are more dizzying turns in store, as characters and subplots appear, disappear and pop up again. What's more, viewers who have honed their armchair investigation skills watching reruns of "Law & Order" will wonder at Council's lack of interest in tracking down obvious leads, like the missing boy's father or a pair of glasses that figures in Brenda's story. There's an unmistakable sense throughout "Freedomland" of crucial scenes being left somewhere on a cutting room floor.

This could be the result of Price's whittling of his 550-page book into a 1 1/2 -hour movie, or it could be the fault of director Joe Roth, whose career includes "Revenge of the Nerds II," "America's Sweethearts" and "Christmas With the Kranks." Watching as "Freedomland" broke into multiple incoherent shards, I couldn't help wondering what it could have been in the hands of a classicist like Clint Eastwood, or Spike Lee, who adapted Price's "Clockers." "Freedomland" is the kind of movie that viewers will want to talk about once they've left the theater -- not to discuss the provocative political issues it tries to engage, but to wonder whether the filmmaker might have made a great movie instead of several mediocre ones.

Freedomland (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and some violent content.

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