Richard Price’s novels, like Clockers and Freedomland, are kaleidoscopic character studies and closely observed social dramas. They don’t fit easily into two-hour movies, though Spike Lee did a fine job with Clockers. When he isn’t working with his own lengthy source material, Price knows how to shape a screenplay — rent Night and the City or Kiss of Death or Mad Dog and Glory and hear some of the sharpest dialogue you’ll hear outside a Tarantino film. That’s because he leaves himself room for characters to talk and reveal themselves. In Freedomland, which he adapted from his 1998 bestseller, Price only has space for the basics. So he covers essentially what happens in the novel, but leaves out its flavor. Having a non-entity director like Joe Roth (Christmas with the Kranks) can’t help.
Here’s an early passage from Price’s book, wherein Detective Lorenzo Council, played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson, gives a speech berating the residents of a New Jersey project for keeping quiet about a local killer: “It has been a whole year. These people were shot a total of eight times. Eight explosions at nine o’clock in the morning. But nobody heard nothing, nobody heard nothing. Now how can that be, if I know that I turn on my radio too loud on the fourth floor someone on the first floor’s gonna be complaining about the racket. How can that be, if I know that if I drop a, a juice glass on the second floor someone from the third floor is gonna be running to the housing office complaining about the party in my apartment.” Can’t you just hear Samuel L. Jackson saying those words? Not in the movie, you won’t.
Instead, we’re left with the bare bones, which won’t hold up this drama. Council is saddled with a hot-button case: a white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), shows up at the hospital with bloodied hands, claiming to have been carjacked by a black man. What’s more, her four-year-old son was still in the car when the man took off. The project where the crime allegedly happened is locked down by the police, inciting much racial tension between the residents and the cops. The whole thing makes Council’s lungs ache (literally; he has asthma). As an excuse to examine urban malaise at novel length, this premise works; as a film drama, it feels both overlong and sketchy.
I’m sorry to say it, but the usually dependable Julianne Moore sucks all the air out of the movie. Brenda is beside herself with grief and terror when she first appears, and she’s never not beside herself. Moore never, ever lets up; it’s an overacting marathon made all the more irritating by the character’s working-class, recovering-addict Jersey accent. Some actors, however dazzling, shouldn’t do accents. Moore is one of them. The one she’s using here especially doesn’t match her pale, aristocratic features. And when she’s acting with Edie Falco (as the leader of a parents’ group that tries to find missing kids), who does look and sound like she belongs here — and who consistently underacts, therefore coming at the material in a more realistic fashion — Moore looks really bad. Brenda, in fact, would’ve been a perfect role for Edie Falco. Why not give a plum part in a major-studio film to her? And why not give Julianne Moore the other role?
Freedomland would’ve been better served as a miniseries on HBO, which is my default suggestion for any movie that needs to be longer than a theatrical showing will allow. As it is, the film gets rid of an entire major character, a reporter following the case, so we miss out on most of the media frenzy that would obviously be surrounding the missing child, the mother, and the police lockdown. Other characters, like Brenda’s racist cop brother (Ron Eldard), barely make any sense — we’re led to believe he may be in on a cover-up, but that comes to nothing.
A resident named Billy who’s been beating his wife similarly gets lost in the shuffle; in the book, there’s a quietly effective confrontation between him and Council, but in the movie he presumably goes on beating his wife. “Talk to Billy,” the guy’s wife says to Council. “Don’t forget,” she says again. And later, “Are you gonna talk to him?” Council never does talk to him. Does he forget, or does the movie just not care about the suffering of a non-white woman?