For most of Freedomland director Joe Roth’s professional life, he has been a studio suit. As a director, he still acts like a studio suit.
Over the past 20 years, Roth has been head of production at 20th Century Fox and Disney, and created his own production shingle, Revolution Studios. As such, his primary job has been “packaging elementsâ€'putting together concepts with stars in a way that, at least theoretically, makes good business sense. This is why Roth can claim to be the genius that gave the go-ahead both to The Sixth Sense and to Gigli.
But when he gets behind the camera, Roth has generally 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 rÃ©sumÃ© 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 mother Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) has wandered into a hospital with bloodied hands, claiming she was carjacked by a young black man while her sleeping 4-year-old son was 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'pushed by Brenda’s brother (Ron Eldard), a cop in a nearby town'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'some to death, some to abuse, many to prison like Council’s own son. And it’s also hard to miss'perhaps especially in Salt Lake City'the undercurrent of bitterness when one lost white child takes the media spotlight while young people of color are lost to society daily.
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 cranked up 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 that 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, as when he holds a long take on The Sopranos’ Edie Falco (as 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 â€¦ well, sort of what you’d expect when the director of Christmas With the Kranks tries to wrap his head around a timely 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'a tale told by someone speaking in 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.