In the oral history of movies, Julianne Moore's entry (the abridged one, anyway) will probably go something like this: She's the perpetual dysfunctional mommy. Whether it's her sorry porn actress with the estranged son in ''Boogie Nights" or the paranoid mother of a not-that-dead child in ''The Forgotten," movie motherhood for Moore is a nightmare. Last year, she took a break from crazy and gave one of her very best performances as the reasonable mother of 10 in ''The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio." It was a short vacation.
None of those women compares to Brenda Martin, the violently bereaved mother Moore plays in ''Freedomland," an overblown urban crime drama that should be a lot better than it is. Brenda is Moore's most hysterical basket case so far, a single mom who starts a race riot after she tells a detective (Samuel L. Jackson) that a young black male carjacked her in a housing project in Dempsey, a fictitious, predominately black North Jersey township.
Brenda, of course, is from Gannon, the neighboring white, working-class town. And it's not just that she's been assaulted and her car stolen. Her assailant has driven off with her 4-year-old son, Cody, in the back seat. News of the abducted boy provokes the police to seal off Dempsey's Armstrong projects, effectively imprisoning its black and Latino tenants until Cody turns up.
Everyone in Armstrong knows Jackson's detective, Lorenzo Council. They call him Big Daddy, and typically when something goes wrong in this five-building complex, its residents turn to him. Now he's in the unfortunate position of having to shepherd Brenda around as the locked-down Armstrong residents seethe: How dare he coddle this white woman while our civil rights are being violated! Brenda happens to have volunteered in a school program in Armstrong, but that turns moot under the circumstances.
Over the course of two days, Brenda and Lorenzo, helped by scores of other people, search for the kid. And over and over, the authenticity of her story is challenged. What is this creepy, histrionic lady not telling us? Through it all, Moore seems hopped up on sorrow, as if she'd been snorting from mounds of woe.
But then, everybody in ''Freedomland" is unhinged. Ron Eldard shows up as Brenda's overheated brother, a Gannon cop whose only function is to yell at and beat up black suspects. In turn, the black suspects, along with the suspects' outraged families (namely the mother and sister of a guy named Rafik), scream and curse back at whomever. The black extras seem to have been instructed just to wave their arms, shake their fists, and roll their necks to simulate outrage. If ever there were a moment for Jackson to revisit his peacekeeping DJ from ''Do the Right Thing," this is it: ''Whoa! Y'all take a chill!"
The usually great Anthony Mackie and the underappreciated Aunjanue Ellis have nothing to do in vaguely written parts. And I wish I could say that the participation of Edie Falco -- she plays a mother who runs a community group that hunts for missing kids -- contributes serenity to the agitated proceedings, but her humorless tone pushes the picture toward the funereal. When Falco's character leads dozens of citizens in scouring a forest for clues, the film turns downright dreary.
This wasn't so with the 1998 Richard Price novel the movie is based on. Price gave a spectacular performance -- a middle-age white guy, persuasively writing in the voices of white women, black women, and black men. (He did something similar with 1992's ''Clockers.") The truth about the crime was a cop-out (as it is in the film), but Price never seemed to be all that interested in going ''gotcha." He used the missing child to assay the many fractures of urban politics.
Price did this patchy film adaptation himself, jettisoning a major character, making confusing composites of other characters that never amount to real people, loading the dialogue with expletives and platitudes, and playing up the novel's pulpy core. ''Freedomland" was a serious book, but the movie doesn't even work as lurid trash.
The director is Joe Roth, the former studio executive who's produced dozens of big Hollywood movies and has directed both froth (''America's Sweethearts") and dross (''Christmas With the Kranks"). Here he uses garish lighting, twitchy editing, and excruciating amounts of slow motion to prove he means business. Maybe he was thinking ''Mystic River." But most of the shots in the movie just prove he has a tin eye. ''Freedomland" probably required a Sidney Lumet or a Spike Lee (who made a forceful movie of ''Clockers"), directors with urban chops to draw something powerful out of the mayhem.
Instead, Roth just gives an overbearing electronic score that would get on Vangelis's nerves and encourages his actors to brandish their most melodramatic sides. Jackson is the only man who comes to mind while reading the book. But his performance has no range, he's keyed up for most of the film, and the character has been made too dutiful for Jackson to inject any real ferocity. It's disappointing.
Moore, meanwhile, is full-on scary: bombastic and soapy. Of course, Denzel Washington won an Oscar for similar actorly insanity in ''Training Day." But Moore is trying to out-act both him and whoever's starring in the movie playing in the theater next door. If it's King Kong, he's got nothing on her.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.