All these years I've thought Freedomland was the defunct amusement park in the Bronx. Silly me. "Freedomland," the movie, is the story (from the novel by Richard Price, who also wrote the screenplay) of a woman (Julianne Moore) who shows up in a New Jersey hospital with bleeding hands, and says to detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) that she was a carjacking victim while trying to take a shortcut through the woods nearby. Apart from the fact that New Jersey has hardly any woods left, there's something about her story that sounds incomplete to the detective. What can it be? How about, her 4-year-old son was in the back seat. Whoa, now there's a manhunt.
And because she works in a mostly black housing project nearby, most of the cops involved think somebody who lives there is the carjacker, so they blockade the whole project, causing severe racial tension, while they question just about everybody who lives there. And guess what: her brother, who's also a cop and a racist, would like to tear the whole project apart to find the black man who did this.
That's the premise of the film, and it carries us for about the first half hour, but unfortunately at that point it begins to implode, when Edie Falco - yes, she of "The Sopranos" - shows up with some friends to help Detective Lorenzo find the child. Why she and not the cops? Good question, and the answer given in the movie is not believable.
"Freedomland" was directed by Joe Roth, who used to be a producer and then was president of a Hollywood studio. He gives the film a certain kinetic power by constantly moving his camera and using quick cuts, though he does it so often, and so needlessly, that our heads begin to ache. And he, or Mr. Price, seem to have stolen all their racial tension scenes directly from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."
Having said that, however, "Freedomland" is the best work Samuel L. Jackson has done in years. His character doesn't have all the answers, Jackson is willing to share the screen with other actors, and he even underplays some of his best lines. But I don't know quite what to say about Julianne Moore. She plays a woman who's been an addict, who's a single mother, whose hold on reality seems to wobble pretty easily. She plays without makeup, and she brings serious talent and great technical skill to her role. A couple of critics even mention her as a possible nominee for next year's Academy Awards. But her character is actually underwritten; there's less to it than meets the eye, and no amount of acting skill can make up for that weakness. Even worse, the resolution of the plot is almost laughably contrived.
This is the time of year when studios dump the films they think of as garbage; no doubt that's what they think of "Freedomland." But there's really a very good film hiding inside the story; it's just a shame that it never quite came out.