Lakeview Terrace starts out mixing social burlesques and melodrama and ends up one more failed thriller about men behaving badly - and stupidly.
Interracial couple Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move to an L.A. suburb and almost immediately suspect their neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a veteran black cop, is plotting to drive them out of the neighborhood.
This movie is so obvious, the audience never suspects: It knows. Abel reacts like a pop-eyed fool to the realization that Chris is not a mover, but Lisa's husband. Working from a script by David Loughery and Howard Korder that descends to the racial wisecracks of a declasse Comedy Central show, director Neil LaBute pounds home the point that Abel objects to their marriage because he thinks each race should stick to its own.
To the film's meager credit, few Hollywood-studio productions would contrast a working-class black widower like Abel, raising a teenage daughter and small son in his own old-school way, with "kinda young, kinda now" professionals. They view their spacious new house, with hillside swimming pool, as a starter home; Abel, of course, worked weekend shifts and extra jobs to afford his house 20 years ago.
These young marrieds are so new to all-American suburbia they think they can make love in the pool without Abel or his kids noticing. In his low point as an actor to date, Jackson enacts a puritanical lasciviousness as Abel watches them cavort and plots their doom.
Cannier moviemakers would have played this setup for bleak comedy all the way through. In the theater, you feel moviegoers trying to push the film in that direction, reacting with laughter to Abel's menacing put-downs and his off-the-book tactics as a beat cop. In the one sustained sequence, Abel arrives at the Mattsons' housewarming party carrying an art book with BLACK in big letters on the cover. He challenges the liberal assumptions of the couple's friends and savors their discomfort. For once, the movie earns its nervous laughter.
The film quickly exhausts its prickly humor and blows everything it has to say about class and generation gaps and race.
Director Labute and his writers subscribe to the pressure-cooker school of melodrama. They pile in the ingredients: a police department crackdown on Abel's cowboy tactics; the Mattsons sparring over the racial biases of their in-laws; Abel smacking his daughter for flouting his rules. The spurious tension comes from anticipating that Abel will bust a spring or two, and that Chris will make the worst happen in a series of bad moves. The filmmakers overheat everything; all we can do is wait for the contents to explode.
The material strands the entire cast, including Wilson, an underrated actor with a gift for WASP self-satire, and Washington, who has quicksilver responsiveness and bristling intelligence (as she did show recently on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher). No one gets shafted worse than Jackson, especially when we learn that Abel has a personal reason for disapproving of this couple. Even on the movie's own terms, its social commentary is skin-deep.
(Screen Gems) Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington. PG-13 for intense thematic material, sexuality, language and drug references. 110 minutes.