click to enlarge Julianne Moore stars in Freedomland.
  • Julianne Moore stars in Freedomland.

Freedomland (R)

Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
When behind the camera, director Joe Roth generally has shown all the artistic sensibility of his father-in-law, legendary B-movie schlockmeister Samuel Z. Arkoff (Food of the Gods, The Land That Time Forgot).

From Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise to America's Sweethearts to Christmas with the Kranks, Roth's directing rsum reads like the stuff of someone whose job isn't making movies, but making money.

That becomes a huge problem when you're trying to make something like Freedomland. Working from Richard Price's adaptation of his own novel, he's telling the story of a New Jersey community about to blow its racial top.

Single white mother Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) wanders into a hospital with bloodied hands, claiming she's been carjacked by a young black man while her 4-year-old son slept in the back seat. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to keep things calm in the housing project near the crime scene, but heavy-handed police action threatens to turn the situation into a powder keg.

Price, one of America's great chroniclers of inner-city tensions, packs a load of ideas into his story. The title comes from the abandoned site of a former youth home, the target of a search for Brenda's son. It becomes a potent metaphor for impoverished communities where a generation of children has been lost. And it's also hard to miss the undercurrent of bitterness when one lost white child grabs the media spotlight while young people of color are lost to society daily, rarely to the same effect.

That's a lot of provocative thematic baggage, and it's clearly far more than Roth knows how to handle. His idea of conveying urgent drama is to make sure the camera rocks and jitters with a queasy persistence, or downshifts to super-slow-mo, or snap-cuts around so that it's nearly impossible to tell what's going on. He shows no sense for how to set his scenes on simmer; everything gets microwaved to insta-boil.

Worse still, he often doesn't seem to grasp the basic grammar of cinema. In one scene, he shows Brenda's cop brother overhearing a crucial moment in a conversation between Brenda and Lorenzo before dashing off purposefully and we literally never see him again. He also botches shooting that same conversation, an extended monologue that gets up in Moore's face so tightly at times that the performance goes from impassioned to overwrought.

There are rare moments of low-key perceptiveness in Roth's direction, like when he holds a long take on The Sopranos' Edie Falco (a lost-child advocate helping with the investigation) as she tries to find out if Brenda knows more than she's telling. Otherwise, it's ... well, sort of what you'd expect when the director of Christmas with the Kranks tries to wrap his head around a tense urban drama.

Freedomland does manage to feature that wonderful, too-brief performance by Falco, and could get you mulling over its challenging ideas. But it's a muddled, sloppy effort, told by someone speaking a language he can't quite understand. Joe Roth's pidgin filmmaking proves he serves cinema best when he's just the guy signing the checks.

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