'Freeheld' review: Well-intentioned drama is heavy-handed, clunky
On paper, the marriage equality drama "Freeheld" (opening in theaters nationwide Oct. 9) should be primed for Award Season glory. But despite featuring a cast anchored by three Academy Award nominees and being a timely film based on an Oscar-winning documentary, this film simply does not live up to its pedigree or its important social issues.
In short: When respected police officer Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she begins a legal battle so Hester can pass her pension to her domestic partner Stacie (Ellen Page) when Hester dies. (Watch the trailer)
"Freehold" is somewhere between the quality of a mediocre HBO original film and slightly smart than the average made-for-TV movie. This movie is a dramatic meet-cute that devolves into a piece of activist filmmaking.
The filmmaker obviously prioritized the story's social issues agenda over creating a compelling human drama. While the two lead characters are front and center at the start, they get lost in the soapboxing of the movie's second and third acts. It's only during the resolution that the characters resurface in a meaningful way. The movie just lists for the entire first act, centered on a couple who appear to have very little to no chemistry together. "Freeheld" doesn't have much in the way of narrative tension until she gets sick -- then and only then does "Freehold" finally become an interesting film.
In addition to some awkward story structure, the screenplay suffers an excess of clunky dialogue that sounds more like a series of bullet points from a soapbox speech than genuine character interplay. One character actually declares "I'm agonizing over this" while Laurel's character is saddled with an odd bit of dialogue where she tells Stacie "Basically I think you're amazing." Surely there are more artistic or creative ways to express that exact sentiment rather than just blurting out a character's feelings. The script is packed with lazy dialogue that just gracelessly moves the plot points forward.
As for the film's cast, Moore, Page and Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") are perhaps the only reasons this heavy-handed film is at all watchable. They do their best to add some nuance and humanity to another otherwise simple story. The always incredible Moore also manages to make the most of her limited screen time during the movies second half, which is taken over largely by Shannon's character.
Comic relief is one thing, but the horrible miscasting of Steve Carell is another. His character is a blundering, loud and distracting force that is enough to pull the audience right out of the movie. His laugh breaks boil down to "look at how gay this man is." His performance is out-of-place silly contracts oddly against the rest of the film and cast -- it's as if he is a character in an entirely different movie.
Final verdict: Truly great films that have a social commentary edge still put characters first, and allows the plot or events to serve the characters. "Freehold" is simply an artless recitation of events of a true story. Its main characters disappear for much of the critical second-half of the film.
"Freeheld" is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality. This true story drama opens in theater nationwide Oct. 9.