Monday, January 25, 2010


Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington & Patrick Wilson
Director: Neil LaBute

There's something to be said for making a mainstream movie that depicts behavior as taboo as destructive racism on the part of a black main character. It's probably even less common for a director to opt to tackle this kind of phenomenon not in some gritty urban drama, but in a wide-release Sam Jackson thriller. At least that's how Lakeview Terrace is marketed -- though for all its semi-successful attempts to ratchet up the intensity with every scene, it's pretty obvious that if the thriller side of this movie was in the driver's seat, the social-commentary side was riding shotgun, and probably reading the directions.

The premise is that twentysomething couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) move into the titular posh gated community in the Hollywood Hills, only to discover that their neighbor Abel (Samuel L. Jackson), an officer with the LAPD, appears to be totally crazy. He makes it clear that he disapproves of their relationship -- since Chris is white and Lisa is black -- and animosity grows, passive aggression becomes real aggression, and Chris and Lisa's imperfect marriage starts to crack under the pressure as the conflict violently comes to a head. This basic treatment sounds like the grounds for an interesting story, but unfortunately, the film often handles all the subject matter with a really distracting degree of heavy-handedness. While there are scenes that succeed in subtly hitting all the right nerves, evoking director Neil LaBute's trademark brand of uncomfortable realism, too many themes hinge on über-simplified paint-by-numbers clichés and hokey constructs. For example, the film thematically builds around an analogy in the form of a subplot about a wildfire that burns in distant view of the community. As the hostility incrementally escalates between Abel and the Mattsons, the fire is incrementally revisited, placing the characters on their balcony again and again to make the same observations about the inferno growing closer and more powerful, and recite the same transparently naïve lines about how, of course, the danger will never reach their (figuratively) insulated home. We get it! This kind of conflict threatens everybody! We get it! Especially those who seem immune! We get it! In the end, we all get burned! It's like a PSA; you're just waiting for Jackson to break the fourth wall, look into the camera and say, "It's time to end the hate. Nobody wins at this game, homes. Nobody wins."

The stupid fire thing even comes up again when Chris puts a row of fully grown trees along his property line to block his view of Abel's yard. Official-voice-of-reason Lisa shakes her head in consternation and argues that this will only breed more antagonism, to which Chris halfheartedly responds that the landscaping is environmental: "Trees make oxygen, right?" And oxygen fuels fire! GET IT?!? It's that kind of triteness that keeps stealing the scene, especially when Chris and Lisa discuss their marriage. The parts are well acted, but the undergrad-film-student dialogue keeps veering toward soap-opera style. Which would be fine if this were just a thriller, but the highfalutin content about class and race makes the style feel awkward and incongruous. (106 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

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