September 25, 2008

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Lakeview Terrace (PG-13)
Samuel L. Jackson plays a cop who scares the bejesus out of his new neighbors in Lakeview Terrace, a thin but sort of entertaining thriller.

Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) have just moved to a lovely house in the Los Angeles hills where Chris is moving up in his career at a Whole-Foods-ish supermarket chain and Lisa is working from home and hoping to start a family. They are, in many ways, a perfect yuppie couple. To their next door neighbor policeman Able Turner (Jackson), however, their yuppieness is a little too much for them. He doesn’t like Chris’s Prius or the way he tries to hide his smoking habit from his wife. He doesn’t like that the couple got a little frisky in their pool and his kids, the teenaged Celia (Regine Nehy) and the slightly younger Marcus (Jaishon Fisher), happened to see them. But what really creams his corn is the fact that Chris is white and Lisa is black. Perhaps in Lisa he sees a future he doesn’t desire for his daughter, perhaps he seems something even more threatening. A few neighborly misunderstandings quickly turn into war — with Chris answering a high-watt security light shining into in his bedroom with a spotlight of his own and Abel responding to trees planted along the fence with a chainsaw. Hard looks across the front lawns turn into more serious displays of seething hatred.

The secret password for this movie is “transference.” Lisa is transferring her frustration with Chris over his reluctance to start a family to his handling of the situation with Abel. Chris is projecting some of his anger at the way his wealthy and disapproving father-in-law treats him onto Abel. Abel is taking out his anger over his wife’s death and the loss of control he has over his daughter on the Mattsons. OK, this is all a little Psych 101 (and the movie actually points this out to us, making it a none-too-subtle bit of subtext), but isn’t that how we often behave, or rather, misbehave? You can’t get too mad at your boss or you’re out of a job, but the guy at the coffee shop with the same facial expressions and attitude is fair game. You can’t give voice to your un-PC feelings that the world is changing in ways you don’t like but you can take it out in being mean to the neighbors who seem to personify that (or in voting against the candidate who seems too comfortable with the things that scare you).

Director Neil LaBute seems to like playing with the dark side of people’s psyches (his early films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, are particularly vicious; he was both writer and director there but here has only a director’s credit). While this movie is neither as innovatively cruel nor as entertaining as his In the Company of Men, it is still occasionally slyly thoughtful.

Throughout the movie, a fire in the canyons burns ever closer to the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood — a very high school English way of making the escalating tension between Turner and the Mattsons visible. Much of the movie works on this kind of middlebrow level — not too subtle, not too thinky. Though entertaining enough, Lakeview Terrace can’t keep you from recognizing all the ways it could have been more clever with the development of its premise, which is that petty “I just don’t like the looks of you” disagreements between neighbors can escalate into full-on war. C+

Rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug reference. Directed by Neil LaBute and written by David Loughery and Howard Korder, Lakeview Terrace is an hour and 46 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.