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LAKEVIEW TERRACE (2008) **1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on September 23rd, 2008
Posted on September 23rd, 2008


Director Neil LaBute hasn’t made an interesting movie since he thundered onto the Hollywood radar with his controversial critical hit “In the Company of Men.” The appeal of his “Nurse Betty” eluded me and his 2006 version of “The Wicker Man” was one of the most laughably bad remakes in recent memory. With “Lakeview Terrace,” he attempts to stir up drama with another controversial subject matter: Racial conflict. Unfortunately he couldn’t get a meaningful message across, resulting in a hollow and mediocre thriller.

Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) are an interracial couple moving into a starter home in a hilly Los Angeles neighborhood. Their new neighbor, Abel (Jackson) is a widower cop-on-the-edge who single-handedly looks after his two preteen kids. Personally offended by idea of the interracial couple living next door to him, he proceeds to intimidate and terrorize the couple in an attempt to drive them out of the neighborhood. When the couple refuses to budge, Abel escalates his aggressive behavior as a deadly brushfire approaches the neighborhood.

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington perform admirably as the harried couple trying to live peacefully in their new neighborhood. They seem fully aware of the difficulties of an interracial marriage, having suffered insults by acquaintances and getting the cold shoulder from Lisa’s successful father. However, the irrational hostility of Abel completely baffles them. No matter how they deal with Abel, he uses it as an excuse to escalate his hostility, even going to the trouble of lulling them into a false sense of security before attacking again. The strength of the film lies in their efforts to remain good people despite what Abel puts them through. They have their personal problems, but they truly love each other and try to do the right thing, even when Abel attempts to provoke them into self destruction. While the performances were terrific, they don’t count for much when the overall product is fundamentally flawed.

The failures of the film lie firmly with the character of Abel. No matter how many shades of gray LaBute tries to instill in Abel, the bottom line is that he’s a one-dimensional villain. He’s a bully to his children, uses excessive force while on the job, and demands that everyone follows his rules “or else.” That’s all in addition to his unwavering prejudice, nonstop threats and merciless terrorizing. In order to make this film work, Abel needs to show flashes of goodness underneath his cold exterior to make his transition to the dark side truly tragic. LaBute attempts this with scenes of Abel fathering his children and revealing how his wife died, but whatever goodness he had is long gone by the time we meet him. Instead of falling from grace, he commits evil from the get-go, wrecking his new neighbors’ air conditioning unit within the first day of meeting them.

I wonder what inspired Sam Jackson to take on this role. I suspect the writers made Abel a more sympathetic character in one of the drafts he read, attracting him to the part. Maybe he simply wanted to play a super-mean bad guy. Whatever the original intent, Jackson brings pure menace to the role, reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s performance of Alonzo Harris in “Training Day,” but not nearly as interesting. While Alonzo’s pure villainy served the plot of “Training Day,” Abel’s one dimensional villain hampered “Lakeview Terrace.” His racially motivated anger is petty and troubling. Whenever he attempts to justify it, you dislike him more because: 1. It’s unprovoked, and 2. He’s not thinking about what’s best for his children. He wants to hurt somebody, plain and simple. These poor folks next door immediately inspire him to do it, destroying any chance of the audience understanding his deep personal pain.

I’d rather see a comedy version of the story (with the racial elements jettisoned of course). The news is full of hilarious stories about belligerent neighbors who go to war with each other over silly reasons. Throw in Sam Jackson as the wacky neighbor, Denzel Washington as the uptight one and call it “Hate Thy Neighbor” or something. That’s something even an overrated director like Neil LaBute could handle.

Rating: 2 and ½ out of 5 stars

Trailer below…

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