Moore is less: Burn but no 'Crash'

When you have two top talents like Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore acting their asses off in a movie, why would you open it in February? You could be hoping for another "S.O.L." (Silence of the Lambs, which opened in February and earned Oscars for Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins), or you could realize you're "S.O.L." (S*** Out of Luck) and have a dog on your hands.

Sadly, Freedomland is in the latter category. While Richard Price (Clockers) is credited with adapting his novel, the script sounds like it was written by committee, with the studio demanding more and more exploitable elements to be added to a potentially taut psychological thriller.

To get it off to a flying start, an explosive situation is established in ridiculously amped-up fashion. Jackson stars as Det. Lorenzo Council, who keeps the lid on the Armstrong housing project in Dempsy, New Jersey, a ghetto in a box that borders the predominantly white town of Gannon.

One night while Lorenzo's stamping out small fires, Brenda Martin (Moore), a white woman from Gannon, wanders through Armstrong in a daze and presents herself at the nearby hospital with bloody hands, claiming to be the victim of a carjacking.

Interrogated by an increasingly frantic Lorenzo (whose health problems in this scene never come up again), Brenda finally mentions what should be the thing she's most concerned about: her four-year-old son Cody was asleep in the back seat when the car was taken.

Because it's a white child, the Gannon police are all over it, jurisdiction be damned. They blockade the project in their search for a lead. Brenda happens to have a brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), on the Gannon force, so he and Lorenzo are in each other's faces while the residents grow increasingly agitated by the police presence.

Lorenzo's worked this beat for years and boasts of knowing everyone in Armstrong, yet he's never seen Brenda, a white woman who teaches in some kind of pre-school there.

Joining the hunt for Cody is a group of concerned mothers, Friends of Kent, who help look for missing kids. They're led by Karen (Edie Falco, whose persuasive supporting performance could be remembered at award time next year if she doesn't go down with the ship), whose own son went missing 10 years ago (an intriguing subplot that's left unresolved despite some teasing).

While Jackson brings his performance down to a tolerable level, Moore acts like a mountain climber, going from one peak to a higher one to a still higher one; and when she runs out of mountains, she keeps climbing in the air. She may not win any awards for it, but you know her character could get off on an insanity plea if she bombed the World Trade Center.

There's no shortage of drama in the projects, providing numerous subplots, some of which are connected to the main story while others are red herrings. The whole place is a powder keg, and it finally explodes, not because there's any reason at that point, but because the movie needs some climactic action. The fires onscreen suggest someone thought of calling it Crash and Burn, but it's sacrilege to compare this trash to the thoughtful, often subtle study of racism that is Crash.

Freedomland went through several directors, including Sydney Pollack and Michael Winterbottom, before winding up in the hands of Joe Roth as his follow-up to Christmas with the Kranks. What more need be said?