2½ stars (out of four)

First-rate actors bail out second-rate directors all the time, and "Freedomland" serves as the latest example. In the film Julianne Moore, playing a carjacking victim, relishes her chance to feast on what most actors never get near, at least outside a Cameron Crowe picture: a big dramatic aria, many paragraphs in length.

This comes late in the picture, when the circumstances of her trauma come to light. Elsewhere in the movie Edie Falco, as a neighborhood missing-children advocate, holds the screen affectingly. The film's best and least fussy scene brings these two together in an uninterrupted take. It works because Moore and Falco know what they're doing. (Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the investigating detective, is the nominal lead, but he doesn't get the arias.) And it works because for once, director Joe Roth quits with all the slow-mo and hotfoot editing and overeager camera technique and lets the performers do their job.

Screenwriter Richard Price adapts his sprawling 1998 novel, set in the same corner of urban New Jersey chaos, the fictional and racially fractious town of Dempsy, as his earlier novel "Clockers" and the more recent "Samaritan." Black rage is simmering in Dempsy, and the mostly white neighboring town of Gannon lies on the other side of an invisible but vulnerable divide.

Brenda Martin (Moore) staggers into the emergency room at the start of "Freedomland," in a bloody daze. Under questioning from Det. Lorenzo Council (Jackson), she reveals that her 4-year-old son, Cody, was in the car driven off by the assailant. Her version of events comes under scrutiny. Is this one more white woman pointing a misguided finger at the African-American community, even though she has worked in the housing project's school for years?

Price's screenplay struggles to corral 546 pages of plot. Much has been cut, including reporter Jesse Haus, a major character. It's a challenge: The writer is interested not merely in the mystery angle, but in retaining the social forces roiling beneath his story. Price attempts to bring the project's residents to life along with the stories of Council and his convict son; the missing-children activist Karen Collucci (Falco), herself a grie ving mother; and Brenda's swaggering police detective brother (Ron Eldard), who gets to say the line: "There is no God! I am God!"

Wearing his screenwriter hat, Price is better on texture and atmosphere than he is on structure and pacing. (His original screenplay "Sea of Love" made for a better, albeit pulpier, movie than either this one or "Clockers.") As for director Roth, he is a successful producer who directs like a producer learning to be a director. (Most recently he directed "Christmas with the Kranks" and "America's Sweethearts.") In "Freedomland" he displays no particular knack for shaping a sequence either visually or dramatically. The movie stalls just when it shouldn't, in the long, leisurely search for young Cody in the woods. Then, when the racial clashes threaten to explode, Roth resorts to screaming close-ups, nervous editing (Nick Moore's cutting is flashy but routine throughout) and composer James Newton Howard's square attempts at sounding Urban and Now.

The cast saves this movie. Jackson, stuck in a reactive role, graciously hands over the screen to Moore and, when she's around, Falco. Much will no doubt be written about the "deglamorized" Moore in "Freedomland." She is excellent. Yet you can't help but notice that even in highest distress, diving headlong into Price's showy monologues, Moore's forehead doesn't seem to move much. A minor point, I realize. But shouldn't working-class New Jersey characters have moving foreheads?

mjphillips@tribune.com

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`Freedomland'

Directed by Joe Roth; screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel; cinematography by Anastas Michos; production design by David Wasco; music by James Newton Howard; edited by Nick Moore; produced by Scott Rudin. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: R (for language and some violent content).

Lorenzo Council - Samuel L. Jackson

Brenda Martin - Julianne Moore

Karen Collucci - Edie Falco

Danny Martin - Ron Eldard

Boyle - William Forsythe

Felicia - Aunjanue Ellis

Billy Williams - Anthony Mackie

Marie - LaTanya Richardson Jackson

Rev. Longway - Clarke Peters