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By Steve Anderson | February 18, 2006

When an obviously distraught white woman wanders into a hospital in the predominantly black neighborhood of Dempsy, claiming she was carjacked by a black man, you know the results are going to be dicey. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes this as well, since his regular beat includes the Armstrong Heights housing projects where the woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), claims the incident occurred. Council, like everyone else, initially questions what she was doing there in the first place.

What, a white woman can’t take an innocent drive through the ghetto without arousing suspicion? What’s this world coming to?

But these concerns are quickly pushed aside when Brenda reveals that her four-year old son was sleeping in the car at the time it was stolen. A simple carjacking has now become a manhunt, complicated by the involvement of Brenda’s brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), a somewhat less than racially sensitive detective from the neighboring white suburb of Gannon. Before you can say “Al Sharpton,” Gannon P.D. are throwing up blockades and putting the pressure on everyone in Armstrong Heights to give up the alleged perpetrator.

“Freedomland,” the latest urban tale from “Clockers” screenwriter Richard Price, wants to be a number of things. It switches back and forth between crime drama, mystery, and a racial commentary, but it changes course too many times to give the audience much to hold on to. Every time it seems like we’re going one way, director Joe “Christmas with the Kranks” Roth switches gears on us, usually by having Moore freak out for ten minutes. Nothing against Moore, you understand, but her constant lapses into near-madness wear one out after a while (and she doesn’t play crazy very well). If this is going to be a serious examination of one woman’s mental illness, so be it, but make up your mind.

One of the hallmarks of modern American society is the level of suspicion we have for any story coming out about kidnappings or missing persons. We’ve experienced enough Susan Smiths and Scott Petersons in this day and age to know that, 90% of the time, we’re not getting the whole story, even after that first news flash interrupts your evening of watching CSI: Intercourse, PA. Council isn’t any different, and he – like the audience – has suspicions about Brenda’s story from the start.

Jackson reins it in a little bit here, which is a welcome change for him. For a while there, I was worried he was about to become one of these guys who really does nothing but play himself in every role (a la Matthew McConaughey and latter era Nicholson), bellowing at his co-stars and generally acting like a bad a*s. Council doesn’t exactly qualify that department, sporting a bit of a gut and frequently whipping out his inhaler. His weariness is obvious, as we realize he’s been the sole support person for the folks of Armstrong Heights for quite some time.

Roth’s uncertain direction and the schizophrenic narrative sabotage some decent acting from the two principals, but “Freedomland” needs more than “ripped from the headlines” subject matter and a bunch of actors stolen from superior HBO shows (Edie Falco from “The Sopranos” and Clarke Peters and Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire,” to name two) to succeed. In trying to be both a gritty portrayal of racial tensions and an examination of motherhood and loss, it loses coherence, ending up about as relevant as a year-old episode of “Law and Order.”

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