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Remember The Forgotten? Well, forget Freedomland. Julianne Moore’s 2004 aliens-stole-my-baby pic was passably entertaining, but does the world really need another melodrama starring Moore, where a kiddie is lost and/or mommy is insane?

Freedomland‘s trailer ostensibly tried to imbue this clunky kidnapping thriller with The Forgotten‘s eerie mystique: ”Beyond the truth?” reads the trailer’s title card; an offensively bearded Ron Eldard shouts, ”We’re chasing ghosts out there!”; and all along Samuel L. Jackson frowns, amid menacing shots of a decayed state children’s asylum (called Freedomland) replete with freaky creaks and ominous mounds of abandoned baby shoes. Is the asylum haunted? Does Julianne even have a child? Or did aliens/ghosts/Shaft eat her baby? And what’s with Edie Falco’s frizzy hair?

The trailer’s misleading messages of faux-spookiness aside, Richard Price (Clockers), adapting his own novel, serves up a compelling story about the racial tensions arising after the New Jersey police lock down an entire community following the claim of Moore’s manic mommy that a black man took her boy. Jackson plays the hapless investigator trying to prevent imminent crisis. Imagine A Cry in the Dark meets Do the Right Thing — but by way of some Saturday Night Live spoof.

Despite the lofty acting talent involved, studio exec-turned-vanity director Joe Roth demonstrates as much grace, promise, and insight in Freedomland as he did in his last work, Christmas with the Kranks. In the constant interrogation scenes between his two stars, the camerawork cops a page from the Paul Greengrass verite book, as shots needlessly jerk to and fro while an overwrought, drum-heavy score pounds in the background, vainly highlighting the nonexistent tension to laughable extremes. Somehow, supporting player Falco manages to leave this project with some dignity in a quietly impressive turn as a mother also tortured by a lost child. But the leads, Jackson, unleashing his usual mix of tetchy incredulity and strained solemnity, and Moore, whose face seems frozen in a vacant grimace, operate in some state of emotional autopilot throughout.

Freedomland is roughly based on a true story: (Spoiler alert) the 1995 tragedy of love-stricken mother-turned-racist finger pointer-turned-child murderer Susan Smith. Given the Smoking-Gun-scandal-heavy backstory, a behind the scenes/making of doc examining how closely the film compares to Smith’s real story would have proven interesting. But alas, the DVD offers no extras. Thanks to the true backstory, this film is more intriguing than it deserves to be.


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