No one whose cinematic track record includes Revenge Of The Nerds II, Coupe De Ville, America's Sweethearts, and Christmas With The Kranks should be allowed within 100 yards of Richard Price's incendiary urban chronicle Freedomland. Yet director Joe Roth has always enjoyed a strong relationship with a studio-system bigwig: himself. At Fox, Disney, and most recently the inaptly named Revolution Studios, Roth has always been a major Hollywood power broker, but poor box office and withering reviews haven't discouraged him from getting behind the camera. Even with an ideal cast and a script by Price himself, Roth lacks the sensibility to capture the subtle tensions between the black residents of a tenement project and the working-class whites in a neighboring city. When the tremors along this faultline inexorably lead to a full-scale earthquake, the moment should devastate like the garbage can thrown through the window of Sal's place in Do The Right Thing, but here, it seems like so much background noise.
Freedomland was written in the aftermath of the Susan Smith case, in which a white mother from South Carolina claimed her two children were carjacked by a black assailant, only to confess later that she backed the vehicle containing them into a lake. This revelation sparked an uproar, but Price imagines what might have happened had the situation been moved to an urban setting. Staggering like a ghost into a hospital in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, her hands bloodied from scraping the pavement, Julianne Moore claims she was carjacked near a uniformly black tenement building. Shortly after detective Samuel L. Jackson comes to investigate, Moore reveals that her son was in the back seat, setting off racial tensions between Dempsy and the neighboring Gannon, a mostly white working-class city.
Though Roth shouldn't be expected to understand Dempsy's intricacies and tensions as well as Price, who created it from whole cloth and continues to return to it in his novels, he paints the city as a generalized "Hollywood urban," all flash cuts and faceless masses teeming and chanting. There are interesting shades to these charactersJackson with his conflicting responsibilities to "his" tenement, the victim, and the truth; Moore's motherhood as both her salvation and the millstone around her neckbut little in the world that surrounds them. Only Edie Falco, appearing as a bereft mother leading a citizen's group that searches for missing children, suggests the great film that Freedomland might have been. A scene in which she subtly tries to coax a confession from Moore by telling her own story is a small masterpiece of writing and performance, and one of the few that Roth doesn't muck up.