Turn on “Law & Order: SVU” any night of the week and you’ll see a story that’s better-told and more smartly structured than “Freedomland,” which is a wreck of a film that has no idea where it’s going.
Where it starts is the housing projects of Dempsy, N.J., in 1999. (Why 1999? No reason.) A white woman named Brenda (Julianne Moore) says she was carjacked by a black man near the projects, and that her 4-year-old son was in the vehicle at the time. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), having just returned from accepting his Stupidest Movie Character Name award, catches the case. He knows the people in the projects and insists he can ferret out the evil-doer.
If there even is an evil-doer, that is. Brenda has a history of drug addiction and even now seems dangerously unstable. The city splits down the racial divide: The whites insist she must be telling the truth and that now is no time to blame the victim, while the blacks are tired of being blamed for everything and are resentful that the mostly white police force has put the projects on lockdown until the culprit is found.
Complicating matters is Brenda’s brother Danny (Ron Eldard), a police detective whose personal attachment to the case mars his judgment. There is also a group of women who have lost children, headed by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), who thrust themselves into the situation.
Julianne Moore is reprising her role as Distraught Mother Who Weeps a Lot from “The Forgotten,” and as fine an actress she is, she can’t overcome Brenda’s one-note characterization as written in Richard Price’s screenplay (which he adapted from his own novel). For 100 minutes, all Brenda is called upon to do is be hysterical and inconsolable. Moore conveys that, sure enough, but often at a level that is over-the-top.
Samuel L. Jackson, meanwhile, is reprising his role as Badass Mofo Who Yells a Lot from every film he’s ever been in. Oh, the attitude! Oh, the swearing! Oh, how I wish he would do something different.
Director Joe Roth, perpetrator of such misdeeds as “Revenge of the Nerds II” and “Christmas with the Kranks,” has too many disparate elements to deal with in Price’s screenplay, and he can’t seem to wrangle them. Racial issues are explored briefly, as when a resident of the projects observes that the neighborhood’s murders barely elicit a response while a missing white kid draws out the cavalry. But only briefly. Themes of parenthood and loss emerge occasionally, particularly in Edie Falco’s understated performance as the missing-child advocate. But again, only briefly.
What Roth — whose real job is working as a movie producer, not a movie director — can’t handle is the film’s inherent gravity. A community about to explode into race riots is serious business, and Roth’s reaction is to become over-serious, over-wrought and over-done, with rampant zooms, cuts and pans. (“Look how serious and edgy this is!” is the translation of that kind of filmic language.) He winds up making a mockery of the weighty topics through his ham-fisted mistreatment of them, and he never manages to make any kind of point. “SVU” handles this kind of plot so much better.
D+ (1 hr., 52 min.; )