Opens Fri., Feb. 17, at Varsity and others

Freedomland starts out so strong, you think it's not the typical flaming sack of shit the studios dump on our doorsteps this time of year (especially sinking ghost-ship studios like Sony and Revolution). Untoppable actress Julianne Moore plays a single mom who stumbles into a New Jersey hospital with bloody hands extended, whimpering that she's just gotten carjacked by a black man from the projects and her 4-year-old was in the car. (By coincidence, perhaps, this plot is similar to Tsotsi, a South African drama opening March 17.) Untoppable actor Samuel L. Jackson plays the local cop who has to solve the crime before race war erupts between the projects and the neighboring white-trash, blue-collar neighborhood.

The characters are marvelously imagined by Richard Price (Clockers, The Wanderers), who impeccably researched the milieu for his 1998 novel and wrote this screenplay. Jackson's heroic cop is based on a real guy Price knows well, and Moore's is very loosely inspired by psycho mommy Susan Smith (or rather, by the alacrity with which whites believed it when she blamed a black man for her troubles). Ron Eldard is moving and scary as the cop brother of the distraught mom, a recovering addict he suspects of backsliding (though he suspects blacks more). As black and white tempers rise to a boil, and as Jackson's tormented cop can see where both sides are coming from emotionally, director (and Revolution exec) Joe Roth renders a setup almost as richly promising as Mystic River.

Why does it all go to hell fast? Price the screenwriter screws Price the novelist, utterly failing to quarry a movie-sized story out of his sprawling tale. "It's like making a telegram out of a 600-page book," he whined to Entertainment Weekly. (Yet somehow this didn't stop him from cashing the Hollywood check.) The film is a succession of disconnected scenes sagging beneath static, protracted monologues en route to a lackluster finale. The look turns from intriguingly bleak to boringly blah. Bits here and there raise hopes. The hunt for the carjacked kid leads to the ruins of an abandoned orphanage, and a haunting shot of some unknown lost child's doll. Edie Falco brings grit to the role of a murdered child's mom who pours her grief into organizing searches for missing kids—another character based on a real person who seems unreal in this movie.

Yet the acting is excellent throughout. Moore and Jackson repeatedly manage to punch their way out of their straitjacket roles for minutes at a time. The true test of Tom Cruise's star power was a bomb like Cocktail, and the test of a great actor is overcoming a role like the ones in Freedomland. There's an important movie to be made of Price's important novel. He wasn't the man for the job. (R)

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