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Friday, October 9, 2015

Movie Review: 'Freeheld'

Poor casting and a moot topic make Freeheld nothing more than Oscar bait.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington winner Philadelphia touched a nerve for its exposure about AIDS in 1993, the Julianne Moore/Ellen Page Freeheld wants to pull our heartstrings about gay rights. Sadly, its poor casting, dull direction, and a recent Supreme Court decision take the wind out of what should have been an admirable project.

It's not that the plot isn't worth investigating: a highly-decorated New Jersey police officer (Moore) seeks to grant her pension to her domestic partner (Page), but the Ocean County board refuses to do so, based on her sexual orientation. Unfortunately, Director Peter Sollett and Writer Ron Nyswaner surround their actors with primetime network drama and on-the-nose soapbox statements that suck the life out of any real emotion behind the topic. When Laurel and Stacie first hook up, things feel rehearsed rather than spontaneous; as their relationship supposedly deepens, none of it feels genuine. We're meant to believe these two fall madly in love, but the build up is dull and frankly struggles to maintain attention. Their 'marriage' feels empty, not because the 2004 law only made them domestic partners, but because Sollett's direction is so by the book.

Things somewhat improve when Laurel learns about her terminal lung cancer, but only from the perspective that the couple now have something to focus on. When the board (called Freeholders in New Jersey) refuses to allow Laurel to transfer her pension, she tries to appeal, but by that time the cancer is keeping Stacie and her support system are stretched to the limit. And here lies the worst decision of the film: suddenly the gay rights advocate Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell) and his Garden State Equality group turn up to put the fire to the freeholders' feet. Carrell's shtick is usually perfect in the right environment, but here it's so over the top that the mood whipsaws between morbid and comedic. I know that wasn't what intended, but that's the end result.

Moreover, Nyswaner's script adds more drama into the mix than actually existed in real life. And while that cheapens the experience, that's not Freeheld's only sin.. To put it bluntly, a story of this intensity no longer holds the weight it once did, due to the recent Supreme Court ruling over gay marriage. Sure, it's meant to be told based on its backwards viewpoints, but the effect is cold oatmeal: lifeless, lacking in definition. It's really 10 years too late, and probably would have played well back then. But it's this sort of Hollywood-ification that ruins any positive effort Freeheld makes in telling its story.

Moore is of course very good at living Laurel's physical deterioration, providing some of the best moments in the film. But Page - who came out in 2014 - is clearly out of her league, relegated to flickering her eyes (as she always does) when controversy arrives. It's her 'move' and it happens so early and so often that it soon loses its effect. Michael Shannon - who play's Laurel's partner - is another matter entirely. He arrives with a powerful but quiet presence as the person caught in the middle of this new paradigm, risking his job by eventually standing with his former partner. Sadly, Sollett just lets Carell interpret Goldstein in any way he wanted, and the effect makes him an anachronism, a flamboyant gay who displays remarkably little depth. Not even Composer Hans Zimmer can breathe life into this, with the final result feeling like a Lifetime film.

Suffering from a debilitating script, poor casting, and a subject that feels like last 24-hour news cycle, Freeheld is nothing but Oscar bait, designed to pull on emotions that are decidedly less controversial than they were just a few short months ago.

Freeheld is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality and has a runtime of 103 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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