Just not enough of a good thing

The Gripe

February 24, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A feature in which Sun writers and critics sound off about the movies.

Although miniseries wore out their welcome at the networks, they've stayed vibrant at PBS, where Bleak House has been winning back Masterpiece Theatre fans, and on cable, where phenomena like The Sopranos (the modern-day I, Claudius) are more like serial miniseries than old-fashioned TV programs. Textured yet still taut and heightened scripts allow actors to create characterizations of astounding depth and lived-in zest. The TV camera becomes a microscope, picking up the performers' slyest, subtlest inflections, or a telescope, bringing fading empires up-close.

These days you're likely to hear more spirited talk from movie people about the latest HBO or Showtime phenomena - or even Bleak House - than discussion of the week's theatrical openings. But movie producers haven't learned the wisdom behind these shows. They persist in buying ambitious, sprawling novels for the screen and truncating them to fit normal feature running times. They keep the plot and some dialogue. But they shred the fabric of the writing, and force actors to leap from one emotional peak to the next, often leaving audiences behind.

Richard Price's Freedomland has proved to be this policy's latest victim. The movie version of Price's 1998 novel opened to withering reviews and slow business a week ago. The novel pivots on the story of a trumped-up carjacking and two mismatched characters: a hard-luck single white mother and a seasoned black housing projects cop. It limns the fault lines of class and race in American cities, and depicts the tension that social stress puts on individual identity.

But in truncated, two-hour movie form, the debates become shouting matches, the characters enigmas. If you haven't read the book, Julianne Moore's daring, moving lead performance may just be inexplicable. Price told me producer Scott Rudin once "suggested the possibility of taking it to cable and doing it like a miniseries, so you wouldn't have to strip it down and risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater." The movie makes you wish for the road not taken.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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