Director: Joe Roth. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Aunjanue Ellis, Ron Eldard, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, William Forsythe, Fly Williams III, Anthony Mackie, Peter Friedman, Domenick Lombardozzi, Aasif Mandvi, Philip Bosco. Screenplay: Richard Price (based on his novel).

The first hour of Joe Roth's Freedomland is so hysterically agitated that as we head into the second half, with its gathering race riot and its creepy mom-squads and its haunted houses and its implausible revelations and its dead bodies, it actually feels like something of a comedown. Only a movie that begins at a pitch of utter lunacy can literally explode at its climax, setting its entire primary location ablaze, and still feel like it's pulling a quilt up around itself, settling in for some cozy resolution.

The opening credits are purloined straight from Se7en, but without the somber and formally controlled lead-in that gave Fincher's sequence some needed context. Freedomland is all about flash-cuts and chickenscratch font and the kind of dark, hypersaturated photography that screams out Urban Inferno. On its own, brother! What could there be to add? With racial tensions set to combust in the New Jersey projects, and empty hypodermics piling up in the gutters and ditches, and Samuel L. Jackson blowing his top amid typical geysers of hectoring oratory, and Julianne Moore padding around the ghetto in a bad sweater and a worse wig, there is simply no time to cultivate a style that actually grows out of the material, or a theme that transcends the most abject horror of the American city (unpersuasively disguised as moral finger-wagging, from some fathomless pedestal of alleged insight). The plot of Freedomland fulminates against the repulsive ease of violent outbursts as a response to communal misery, but the quaking camera, whip cuts, paranoid narrative, bellowing sound mix, and sallow colors of the movie embody just this sort of reckless outburst. The only way that Roth could have taken a more timid approach to the material would be to romantically sanctify the suffering and anger of his characters—as he indeed does in the final scenes, bathing a mob uprising and retaliatory police violence in the kind of abstracted hymnal cooing that always means to pose the question, "How have we come to this?" but which operates not from the vantage of social critique but of utter evasion: the sacralization of the filmmakers' own ignorance.

If there weren't some good actors in the joint, it would be an utter waste of time. Moore fares a little better than Jackson at the game they are both quite obviously playing, which is the tackling of roles presumed to exceed their range. This is to say, her improbable version of foggy semi-literacy and her sea of dropped consonants go over a little bit better than Jackson's lachrymose fall into helpless vulnerability. Watching Jackson cry, rather emptily, after the equally empty screams and bullying postures of his early scenes is simply discomfiting; watching Moore root around in the almost autistic self-deceptions of her character, however improbably shaped into long, revelatory monologues, is at least a sideshow diversion (though, seriously, someone's agent needs to get off the decaf). Moore interrupts Jackson in their final conversation with a totally unexpected interjection, and perhaps since it's a closing line that Moore knows her way around, she's able to infuse it with enough eerie, even addled sincerity that it almost works, and for a brief instant, it almost implies that the movie has worked, even though it quite obviously hasn't. Indeed, Moore's own performance has taken no stock of the fact that we will finally have to believe her character as an adulteress, with a wholly unconvincing partner. This path of haunted maternity that she has been trodding for so many years is, I worry, starting to dull her receptivity to other layers in her characters.

Without a doubt, acting honors go to Edie Falco, who, as she is wont to do, scrapes away every residue of her other performances, and thereby supplies a knife-edged portrait of palpably neurotic grief. The film doesn't know what to do with the character or the performance—she keeps showing up places where the character needn't go, so that Roth can gawk at someone who has evidently grasped the material in a fuller, more individualized way than anyone else has. Falco's whole subplot, where Latanya Richardson also concocts some memorable moments, is both the dead-end and the saving grace of the film. Narratively, it amounts to precious little, even by the low standards of red-herring suspense, but it does temporarily condense the queasy indirection and salaciousness of the movie into something resonant, as she and her band of grieving refugees from America's struggling middle class poke through the weeds and debris of an even lower class, keeping up a pretense of philanthropic solace when in fact they are, to an almost lewd degree of self-interest, assuaging their own demons. Once Falco and her ilk inaugurate this idea into the movie, you sense how the entire narrative could have sustained it, if the film weren't so beholden to its trivializing style and to its lame accoutrements as a popcorn thriller. I never know whether to feel better or worse when such a marginal film briefly summons the shadow of the very ambitions that it otherwise flouts and avoids. Is it better for a script or a film to have thought and lost, than never to have thought at all? That's just one of infinite questions that Freedomland raises but never answers, whether in its plot or, more depressingly, in its own malformed state of being. Grade: D+

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