[Screen It]

(2006) (Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore) (R)

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Drama: A black Jersey cop tries to keep the peace in the projects when they're barricaded following a white woman claiming a black man stole her car containing her 4-year-old son.
It's 1999 and Lorenzo Council (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) is a black cop in Dempsey, New Jersey who, along with white partner Bobby Boyle (WILLIAM FORSYTHE), is in tight with most of the residents of the Armstrong housing projects. He's arrived there to serve a warrant to Rafik (FLY WILLIAMS III) for possession, but is distracted by news that a white woman, Brenda Martin (JULIANNE MOORE), who works at the local daycare center, was reportedly carjacked by a black man on her way home to the nearby town of Gannon. Only under Lorenzo's intense interrogation does she admit that her 4-old-son Cody was asleep in the back seat.

Lorenzo immediately puts out an A.P.B. and it's not long before Brenda's cop brother Danny Martin (RON ELDARD) puts himself on the case, immediately thinking someone in the projects is responsible. As does Lorenzo's superior who blockades the projects in the belief that such a shake down will eventually get someone to talk.

Instead, it only enrages the likes of Rafik, Reverend Longway (CLARKE PETERS) who makes claims of racism, and Brenda's coworker Felicia (AUNJANUE ELLIS) who has other things to think about now that her boyfriend Billy (ANTHONY MACKIE) has started beating her. Rafik gets a beating of his own courtesy of the police, and Lorenzo realizes he has to solve the case and soon.

Accordingly, he agrees to let Karen Collucci (EDIE FALCO) and her small organization -- that searches for missing kids -- assist in his quest. Unsure if Brenda is being honest or not, Lorenzo races to find the truth and/or boy, all as racism-fueled emotions near the boiling point back in the projects.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In nature, it's usually the males of any given species that are known to kill their offspring. In humans, however, it's the mothers who are just as apt to kill their kids or otherwise abuse them in some unspeakable fashion (that is, at least if you follow the news). Often times, they're loving mothers who, for one reason or another, suddenly snap and things then quickly turn bad from there.

If she's not careful, Julianne Moore may soon be typecast as one such woman, at least as she appears on the silver screen. While she may have been a great mom in the little seen "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," she wasn't exactly the best mother in 2002's "The Hours" or when she seemingly lost her son in "The Forgotten" two years ago.

Now she's done something similar in "Freedomland," although this particular disappearance doesn't have anything to do with people suddenly being ripped off the face of the planet and flung into oblivion (which is too bad as that was one cool effect). Rather than going only for the "is the mom crazy" angle that fueled that thriller, however, director Joe Roth is fishing for bigger targets in this dramatic thriller.

Adapted by Richard Price from his own novel (which is sometimes a good thing, and at others -- such as here - it isn't), the story tackles various levels of racism from various parties, the overall issue of parenting, mental instability and more. Unfortunately, and despite a terrific cast and a compelling if not particularly original premise, the film bungles nearly every aspect and element.

There's no denying that there's nothing like missing white kids (particularly attractive female teens) to generate nonstop press coverage and mass attempts to find them, while those of color usually don't evoke the same degree of response or care. And then there's the fact that white victims -- who sometimes turn out to be the guilty party -- often finger black men as the perps.

Both of those topics are addressed here, but while there's lots of yelling, finger pointing and finally a physical clash, this no second coming of Spike Lee's brilliant look at racism and racial issues in "Do the Right Thing." The issues are brought up here, but are never examined and certainly not resolved in any satisfactory manner.

And in terms of serving as a catalyst for propelling the film forward, they can only go so far. Heck, even the related moments at the beginning of the third "Die Hard" film (where Samuel L. Jackson's character had to deal with Bruce Willis' arriving in his mostly black neighborhood wearing a less than politically correct message board) had more punch to them.

Speaking of Mr. Jackson, he leads the cast here playing a black cop trying to keep the peace during a missing child investigation that's resulted in a black housing project being blockaded in an effort to flush out the suspected perp. One of those damaged soul and unorthodox cop characters that often appear in such films, the presumably symbolically named Council isn't one of Jackson's better performances.

He goes through the usual motions ranging from smooth pacifier to bug-eyed, raving intimidator, but neither he nor Roth seem to be able to get a grip on the character. It's not bad, it's just that he's never fully realized, much like the overall film.

The same holds true for Julianne Moore, a talented actress whose character is decidedly more complex and intriguing (notwithstanding the initial "Forgotten" similarities). Without giving anything away, let's just say she goes through a range of emotions and revelations, although the final one isn't fully clarified (purposefully or sloppily), thus leaving something of a question mark hanging over her character and whether she's a victim or perp herself. Moore's performance seems to vary just as much as her character (which, I suppose, is mostly unavoidable). Sometimes there's subtle greatness, but at others, it borders on too much in the way of histrionics.

More even keeled is Edie Falco (of "Sopranos" fame) as the head of an organization that searches for missing children. While she doesn't get enough screen time to do her character justice, she does have a terrific scene with Moore where what seems like therapeutic admission slowly segues into psychological interrogation. Falco nails the scene and makes you wish there was more of her and less of the racial elements that end up feeling like cheap ploys to spice up the plot.

Those aren't the only issues, however, as the film has other problems, such as blatant lapses in logic and/or poor editing. That includes how two characters get in and out of the housing project barricade while no one else apparently can. Then there's Ron Eldard's character -- a cop with a 'tude and one imagines an itchy trigger finger -- who overhears the identity of someone who apparently participated in the boy's disappearance. We see him heading off in presumed full Chuck Bronson mode, but nothing ever comes of that.

The same holds true for a minor character mentioning to Council that her boyfriend is now beating her. We expect Jackson to go "Pulp Fiction" on that creep, but that scene also appears to have been forgotten or left on the cutting room floor. Similarly, the film opens with "Seven" type credits where images of handwritten notes and more flash at us on the screen, but that's also dumped.

Named after an apparently fictitious, but notorious and long abandoned children's asylum -- where an incredibly long search scene takes place that (not surprisingly) doesn't do much for the film -- "Freedomland" tries to tackle a variety of societal issues, but doesn't manage to do much of anything interesting or new with the material. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 13, 2006 / Posted February 17, 2006

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