Feb 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

Though his films fail more often than not, screenwriter and novelist Richard Price has a knack for writing fully developed characters, and his attention to detail fleshes out even the smallest role. Take the relationship between detectives Samuel L. Jackson and William Forsythe in Freedomland. Though their exchanges barely amount to 10 minutes of screen time, what they do say is authentic and meaningful, going well beyond the token nature of their black-white partnership to suggest a long personal history.

Unfortunately, that attention to craft and innovation isn't brought to Freedomland's overarching story or direction. The film tries to do too much and none of it is particularly original.

Things open with Brenda Martin's (Julianne Moore) catatonic stumble into a hospital ER. Her hands are cut and bloodied. Disoriented, she tells the doctors and police that she's been carjacked and that her 4-year-old son was asleep in the backseat. Because her son was taken near a black housing project, the police lock down the area, igniting racial tensions between residents and the predominantly white cops. Detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson) is assigned to the case and struggles to get to the truth of what happened before the whole situation goes to hell. Recruiting the help of Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the leader of a parental group that helps find missing children, Lorenzo discovers that Brenda might not be telling the whole story (though it's not quite what you think).

Freedomland's biggest problem is that it's constructed like a big-idea thriller when the story demands something more intimate and understated. Price introduces too many plot threads and never convincingly weaves them together. Everything feels unfocused and rushed, even while the film's pace drags.

Director Joe Roth (Christmas with the Kranks, America's Sweethearts) seems out of his league. Unable to untangle the script, he oversells the obvious dramatic beats with hyperkinetic camerawork. Worse still, his tone is all wrong. What should have been a moving character piece turns into an amped-up episode of Law and Order without the killer payoff.

Jackson puts aside his raging "black Al Pacino" persona and delivers a smart, low-key performance. He strikes just the right chord of resigned melancholy in his aging, asthmatic, overweight cop. Equally effective is Falco, expertly conveying the sad determination of a mother who knows the true meaning of loss. Surprisingly, it's Moore who gives in to the film's thundering histrionics. Her performance is a cascade of hollow-eyed stares and nervous tics. Though there's no questioning Moore's ability to discover untapped reserves of hysteria, her performance amounts to little more than shameless scenery chewing. Her big-moment monologue is gruelingly over-the-top and seems much better suited to the off-Broadway stage than the movie screen.

If good intentions were all that mattered, Freedomland's dedication to giving voice to victims — of prejudice, injustice and crime — would earn it an impressive box office. Unfortunately, with so many undernourished and overly familiar sentiments, the only victim is the audience member who expected a thrilling night at the movies.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].