It’s a clever casting trick to place Julianne Moore in the starring role in “Freedomland.” Didn’t she play this same traumatized, hallucinating mother, searching for her missing (and possibly non-existent) son, in 2004’s “The Forgotten”?
Well, yes and no. Just casting Moore in the role raises certain expectations — which then allow the filmmakers to lead us down one garden path while they’re setting up an entirely different kind of narrative pay-off. The movie keeps us guessing longer than it might have if, say, Reese Witherspoon had been the star.
Moore’s semi-hysterical mom, Brenda Martin, appears to be the victim of a New Jersey carjacking when she turns up at a medical center, her hands raw and bleeding. The more she talks to police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), the more she seems to be hiding something.
Eventually she admits that her son, Cody, was in the car when it was stolen, and a search for the four-year-old begins. Brenda’s brother Danny (Ron Eldard) suspects she’s stoned; at one point she imagines that she sees Cody alive and well. Danny doesn’t have much use for her, but a local activist, Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), is less judgmental. It’s Karen’s bonding with Brenda that leads to the final revelation — and Moore’s escape from the conventions of “The Forgotten.”
Still, a single casting coup can’t keep “Freedomland” from bogging down in overwrought melodrama and repetitious message-posting. Richard Price’s script, based on his 1998 novel, has much to say about parenting, responsibility and redemption, but he often seems to be putting words in the mouths of his characters.
Too many scenes seem set up to deliver platitudes: parents should spend more time with their kids, jail is not the answer for juveniles, siblings should not be so hard on each other, forgiveness is more effective in the long run than getting even.
“I have so much love in me,” says Moore’s character, who declares that her missing son changed her life so radically that “he gave birth to me.”
Do people ever talk like this? Even when actors as skilled as Moore and Jackson are delivering the lines, they fail to convince. This is one of the few films in which their contributions become less effective the longer they’re on camera. Moore’s perpetual state of weepiness grows tiresome, as does Jackson’s self-righteous fervor. Eldard is left high and dry; Danny seems to have been written out at some point.
The one persuasive performance comes from Falco, who brings a focused intensity to the role of Karen, who freely admits that her obsession with her own lost child has destroyed her family. She no longer lives with her husband and remaining kids, and sees herself as a neighborhood guardian whose mission is to find and protect abandoned children.
The director, Joe Roth, has seemed more comfortable in the past with comedy (“Return of the Nerds II”) than with drama (“Streets of Gold”). He seems miscast as the director of “Freedomland” (the title refers to the area where Karen thinks Cody will be found), but he is to be commended for allowing Falco to carry the film’s most potent scenes.