Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lakeview Terrace

Director: Neil LaBute
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Jay Hernandez
Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

In Neil LaBute’s “neighbor from hell” suburban thriller Lakeview Terrace we’re teased with a deep, subtle character study before the film turns on itself to reveal the makeshift thriller you expected all along. This is particularly stinging if only because Samuel L. Jackson is given a fairly layered role for a change, at least for most of the running time. His performance could almost be described as restrained and realistic, bolstered by a script that really understands how people behave and react in certain situations. When everything flies off the rails in the last half hour (albeit in a pulse pounding, entertaining way), there’s still that lingering feeling something much deeper could have been done with the material.

The LaBute who directed 1997’s In The Company of Men would have given us that film, a suburban nightmare that could have been on par with the best in the genre. Instead, we’re left with the kind of film the two sleazebag main characters in that movie would have directed. It’s still successful mainly because of the performances and overall strength of the premise, but a lot more could have been done, or more accurately, less should have been done.

What starts as a serious examination of American suburbia degenerates into a game of baiting audiences into feeling as much seething hatred for its antagonist as humanly possible, which isn’t difficult considering the heft Jackson brings to the role. He slowly morphs from being merely abrasive and unlikable into the devil incarnate. The story is familiar in the best and worst possible ways. It struck a chord, which in the end, turns out to be all the movie was really aiming for. So it’s mildly successful, if not necessarily rewarding.

It’s an exciting time for Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington) who have just purchased their dream home in a picaresque Southern California community. Their next-door neighbor, widowed father Abel Turner (Jackson) is a take no prisoners L.A.P.D. police officer who’s just as strict and stern at home with his two kids (Regine Nehy and Jaison Fisher) as he is on the job. At first everything between the neighbors is fine, until the volatile Turner starts actively seeking out reasons for it not to be. Chris and Lisa accidentally make it easy for him with a risqué swimming exhibition for his kids late one night. That’s the trigger that sets him off, but if it wasn’t that he would have surely found something else. Then comes the uncomfortable comments and awkward situations that reveal Turner may not just be your typical angry neighbor, but a bitter racist with an axe to grind.
He starts slowly dropping subtly inappropriate remarks that imply he’s a lot more than annoyed that he’s living next door to an interracial couple. This is where the creative meat of the film and Jackson’s performance come into full view. The remarks are bad, but they’re not SO BAD that you’d avoid contact with this person altogether. They start as just plain strange and uncomfortable and you’d see at first why Chris would want to make an effort to get along with this guy before rushing to judgment.

Jackson’s intimidating presence conveys Turner as a man you don’t want on your bad side, but there’s a softer side that implies he’d have your back if he likes you. Wilson was the right actor to play opposite him because he represents Chris as the “everyman” who tries his best to get along with everyone, yet becomes flustered when his good intentions fail to yield the desired result. He handles the situation exactly how any of us would, which brings the film closer to home. As Chris’ efforts to reach a middle ground with Turner fail it brings to the surface some issues in his marriage and relationship with his father-in-law. Things may not be as perfect as he thought, but are they ever?

Much of the first hour is excellent because it focuses on these real-life issues and puts into the position of imagining how we’d deal with this situation. The issue of race boils to the surface and you can’t help but consider how we’d react if the characters’ races were reversed. It’s a sensitive issue. All these ideas. All this set-up. An intriguing Jackson performance. All the cards were in place. But instead of looking for real emotional truth in the film’s final 40 minutes someone thought it would be a better idea to descend into standard thriller territory.

Jackson tries to keep it as grounded as he can given the circumstances, but the longer this whole thing goes the more Turner starts moving away from being the complex, angry man we first met to resembling a movie character acting out the required beats of the plot. The intelligent elements that were present in the script earlier don’t seem that intelligent when viewed in light of the ending. An ending should make the events that proceed it seem more meaningful, not less so. An ill-advised scene meant to give Turner an involving backstory instead comes off as the film trying to apologize for his sociopathic behavior, or worse, urge us to feel sorry for him.
The third act feels very generic, reeking of studio interference and test screenings, which is a shame considering the many other interesting directions this could have gone. They took the easy way out but I was on the edge of my seat anyway because of Jackson’s performance and genuine hatred you build for his character throughout the course of the film. If this is a step up for him, it can’t be considered one for Wilson, but that’s only because it’s tough to top Oscar-worthy performances in two of the decade’s best dramas. Those films, Little Children and Hard Candy, dug deep into suburban moral decay in ways this film could have if David Loughery and Howard Korder’s script were ambitious enough. They also gave Wilson deeper, more flawed characters to work with. Here he’s just basically playing some preppy white guy who lives down the street. Despite being limited by the role he succeeds in making it seem more important than it is and is the perfect foil for Jackson.

At one point during the film Chris tries to convince Turner that he and his wife have a lot in common. I couldn’t help but laugh at that as I pictured them boring one another to death on a daily basis. This couple’s life and their personalities aren’t very exciting and seem to exist for the sole reason of drawing Turner’s ire and bringing his latent racist tendencies to the surface. We're lead to believe the friendship between Washington's Lisa and Turner’s teenage daughter will be explored as something meaningful. It isn’t. Both kids are all but discarded halfway through the story, disappointing because the performances from the young actors are actually pretty good.

As a thriller this delivers exactly what was advertised so there isn’t much to complain about on that front. It’s as a character study where it doesn’t reach its expected potential. Then again, from the trailers, I wasn’t expecting anything remotely resembling a character study to begin with so you could say the film over-performed slightly in that sense. It really all depends on your perspective and the attitude you approach this with. Since I tend to love suburban nightmare films this would have to do a lot more wrong to hit a sour note with me.

Like most, I gave up trying to figure out what’s happened to the career of LaBute after his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, but the problems that exist here are primarily with the script, which he didn’t write. The film works for what it is and that’s mainly because of the performances, especially Jackson’s. Lakeview Terrace definitely could have been better but I strangely expected it to be a lot worse. It's at least somewhat smart for a dumb thriller.

1 comment:

JD said...

When I saw this was a Neil Labute film, my interest went sky high. While it is a step up from the disastrous remake of The Wicker Man, it still feels like another variation of Unlawful Entry in the last act.
It would have been cool if LaBute had written the script for this one because this could much better than it actually was.
And for Jackson it is for the most part better than his roles that he takes-- does he ever say no?
And with the economy tanking, he is going to take everything coming his way.

You bring up a lot of good points here. I really appreciate it this review. It was a decent film, but I miss the Neil Labute of The Shape Of THings and In The Company Of Men.
I like Nurse Betty a lot too.

Excellent review!!