Screenwriter Richard Price writes for actors with a capital A, delighting in character-driven monologues that offer bang for their buck. In the underrated remake of Kiss of Death, Nicolas Cage played the colorfully named Little Junior, a pumped-up thug who creates an acronym for himself to better visualize his goals: “Balls. Attitude. Direction. B.A.D.” The kidnapper in Ransom played by Gary Sinise taunted Mel Gibson’s hero by going on long sociological rants about the Morlocks and the Eloi from The Time Machine, and Jeffrey Wright’s bad guy in the remake of Shaft sulked over his Egyptian cotton shirt when it got food stains on it after a brawl. Such colorful affectations make his villains pop off the screen, and his heroes maintain tough, blue-collar resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.
Even when the movies fail, and they frequently do, they remain enjoyable to watch. This is not because of Price’s subtlety (he’s as subtle as a baseball bat hitting a windshield), or because of his deftness at wrapping up the plot—why have one ending when you can have five? It’s because he shares with Charles Dickens the singular delight of writing vivid characterizations, and dialogue that makes them pop. With a few colorful turns of phrase, Price sets up a cop buddy relationship between neighborhood hero Samuel L. Jackson and token white guy partner William Forsythe that’s fully realized, believable, and even meaningful, despite the fact that they barely register as a subplot in Freedomland.
The detail and insight into character extends to all the speaking roles, from the denizens of the projects to the nearby white suburban neighborhood just across the park. All of those New Jersey citizens are more compelling than the moralizing epic that surrounds them. Freedomland opens with recovering addict Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) stumbling into a hospital claiming a black man stole her car, and that her child was in the back seat (a premise inspired by the infamous Susan Smith, who created a false story about “black kidnappers” to cover for the fact that she was responsible for her child’s death). The fact that the police shut down the projects in search of the missing white kid sends the community into an uproar, and as riots threaten to engulf the streets, Jackson’s character, given the Symbolic Name of Lorenzo Council, feels like Brenda isn’t telling the whole truth.
Moore and Jackson are each given meaty roles to work with, and ample opportunity for shouting matches and quiet spells. Taking on a New Jersey accent and frayed nerves, Moore is able to find multiple levels of hysteria that project intensity without going for the one-note harpy shrieks she employed in Magnolia. (Price’s monologues may feel like they belong in a play, but at least they’re artfully constructed.) Jackson dabbles in his by now familiar rage routine, but finds nuance in the character’s underlying sadness. Mention of his character’s slowly growing pot belly reveals more about him than his silly posturing in Coach Carter, S.W.A.T., and even the Price-scripted Shaft.
But even if you’re into the Price school of screenwriting, Freedomland pushes its luck. Like Spike Lee’s Clockers (another Price script), it tries to cram in too much. Too many characters serve as mouthpieces for various ideologies, including a well-cast (and monologue-prone) Edie Falco as the head of a group of mothers tracking down missing kids, and the pot feels overstuffed. Director Joe Roth does a solid journeyman’s work, but he’s not seasoned enough to give poetic visual impact to Price’s long-winded prose. The numerous story threads never cohere in a satisfactory way, or they feel rushed through, and instead of cutting away from those lovingly etched Prince monologues to get back to the action at hand, the action gets sped through and is undernourished. Freedomland is finally cursed by its own good intentions, and its never-ending epilogue tries to resolve the epic canvas with tidy sentiment, goodwill, and tears. But when you’ve crafted characters as rich and memorable as Prince’s, one has to remember the old mantra that good drama should never be easily resolved.