Neil LaBute has a bulletin for America: Racial strife is alive and well. Why he regards this as news is anyone’s guess, but he delivers it solemnly and dresses it up with references to the Rodney King beating. One of the movie’s principal characters is an LAPD officer. The other, a white yuppie, asks at one point, “Can’t we all just get along?” The title is, indeed, the name of the neighborhood where the 1991 King beating took place. Provocateur, playwright and film director LaBute (In the Company of Men) seems to have serious matters on his mind. So it’s baffling that he elected to channel them through fluff this formulaic and forgettable.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a veteran cop who initially seems to be a normal enough, tough-but-fair single father. (His wife died in a car accident three years earlier.) He runs his household like a boot camp, but clearly loves his son and daughter and stays on friendly terms with his neighbors. At least until the day an interracial couple moves in next door and celebrates the occasion by making whoopee in their new pool — as the cop and his children watch from a window in horror.
The newlyweds are Patrick Wilson, a Prius-driving, herbal-cigarette-smoking executive for an environmentally conscious grocery chain, and Kerry Washington, an artist who does some vague sort of work out of her home. It’s as though screenwriters Howard Korder and David Loughery decided not to bother to flesh out her character, since her only real function in the film is to be the black woman the white guy married.
The characters played by Wilson and Jackson are the only ones that really matter in the movie, just as the characters played by Ben Affleck and Jackson were the only ones who really mattered in the movie Changing Lanes — on which this one is, in many respects, a simple variation with more pretensions to social significance.
Both are melodramas in which two men are thrown together by fate, get off on the wrong foot, and dedicate themselves to making each other miserable, the intensity of their tactics escalating as the movie progresses. As I watched Lakeview Terrace, I found myself wondering whether Jackson forgot he’d already made a movie so similar to this one, or if he’s simply stopped sweating such things at this stage of his career.
The cop has a problem with mixed marriages and “white guys who think they can take whatever they want.” He’s not shy about sharing these feelings with Wilson as the two walk the officer’s nightly neighborhood patrol early in the film, and there’s something entertainingly menacing about his candor. Especially when he tells Mr. Pool Sex that there are no doubt places where that kind of thing is acceptable, and the couple may want to think about relocating to one of them. Awkward. The initial phase of the feud is good, creepy fun.
But LaBute is not content to confine the sparring to mind games. Before you know it, tires are slashed, personal property is destroyed, and pervy low-lifes are hired to break, enter and wreak havoc. Things go so far over the top that there’s even a scene in which one neighbor attacks the other with a howling chainsaw.
By the time the final showdown arrives, all pretense to social commentary has been abandoned in favor of credibility-stretching plot turns and spectacles of hackneyed violence.
I can’t believe the number of critics who’ve called Lakeview Terrace a provocative exploration of the state of race relations. What a crock. Its producers could have hired Rodney King’s entire family — and the cops who assaulted him — to appear in cameos and tapped Spike Lee to direct, and this movie still wouldn’t be anything more than a by-the-numbers game of cat and mouse.
If you live next door to a psycho, does it really matter that he’s black? Or that he’s a bigot? No, only that he has a large collection of power tools and isn’t afraid to use them. As a rumination on race relations, LaBute’s latest is a dead end. Even if psychological thrills are all you’re after, Lakeview Terrace is the last place you’ll want to come looking.