A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 103 mins.

Abel: Samuel L. Jackson / Chris: Patrick Wilson / Lisa: Kerry Washington / Javier: Jay Hernandez

Directed by Neil LaBute / Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder

LAKEVIEW TERRACE is as phony as a three-dollar bill.  Even worse, this movie is wrong.  

Actually, it's dead, ass-backwards wrong on so many levels that you are left questioning the mindset of all participants involved.  Perhaps its biggest sin is that it tries to be a scathing and thought-provoking commentary on modern societal race relations and how - under just the right set of circumstances - anyone can become a raving bigot.  These type of dicey and weighty thematic issues were dealt with flawlessly in Paul Haggis’ CRASH, but in LAKEVIEW TERRACE it sure is hard to give a damn, especially when the film feels more akin to be a dumb and flaccid UNLAWFUL ENTRY clone and a repetitive “neighbor from hell” sub genre flick. 

The characters and their actions in this film rarely, if ever, feel plausible.  These are not flesh and blood human beings, but rather puppets at the mercy of a formulaic and tediously silly script whose utter pretentiousness and self-indulgent grandstanding is thunderously laughable.  Consider: you are a wealthy, well-to-do, yuppie thirty-something man that has just moved into a luxurious and affluent neighborhood and are quickly and mercilessly terrorized by a cruel, crazy, and vindictive authoritarian neighbor that makes it abundantly clear that you will never be welcome to stay.  Then, when your malicious neighbor takes actions that can easily be deemed as criminal, wouldn’t the first instinct be to abruptly put up a "for sale" sign and leave to avoid any more hardships, especially when you clearly see no other recourse to amend things with this sicko? 

Alas, the characters in LAKEVIEW TERRACE don’t act in accordance with any semblance of logic and reality, which only serves to prove the film’s hollowness.  What’s most bizarre is that this is all courtesy of Neil LaBute, a strong filmmaker and playwright that has made bleak and desolate social satires that tantalized us on the nature of humanity’s treatment towards fellow man (see his scathing and incendiary IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, his debut effort, or even his later YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, which was a scandalous expose on suburban couples’ sex lives).  IN THE COMPANY OF MEN in particular was a masterstroke at showing masculine cruelty and ambivalence and was compelling for its unsettling and edgy portrayals of misogyny gone horribly amok.  There are traces of this in LAKEVIEW TERRACE, but when the film falls downright victim to its generic and ridiculously preposterous narrative, then none of it holds up well to even modest scrutiny. 

I have often been asked if great performances can trump a bad script, and I have frequently stated that they can (at least…I think I have).  LAKEVIEW TERRACE just may be the first film I can recall that has great performances by actors I truly admire that are tainted by awful writing.  Watching the film is an exercise in seeing talented performers do what they can with beyond mediocre material.  Most, if not all, of the actors in the film come off smashingly, but they are wasted by TERRACE’S plot, which seems to have been sluggishly cobbled together out of various “Screenwriting: How To…” textbooks. 

We are initially introduced to an upper class suburb of East Los Angeles where a widowed and tightly wound up police office lives with his two kids.  He is Abel Turner, played with real gusto and fiery passion by Samuel L. Jackson, one of the more dependable actors at playing fire and brimstone types.  Abel is a man of deep emotional wounds.  He’s a 28-year veteran at a thankless job that people don’t appreciate, has Internal Affairs all over him for various breeches of ethical conduct, and has two children that don’t relate to him on most levels.  Perhaps the latter mentioned issue is a result of the fact that Abel is an intimidating and egregiously strict disciplinarian and wreaks a social dictatorship over his home.   

Abel has even more “issues”: he’s a racist that is marred by both social and ethnic prejudices.  He’s lived an upbringing in the worst slums of the City of Angels, so there certainly is some understanding of his inner demons.  Because he does not want his family to live as he did as a child, Abel becomes a staunch and tyrannical separatist.  In his mind, he has created his own militantly run neighborhood set by his own rules...and undesirables are not welcome, but all this changes with his new neighbors. 

New to the neighborhood is a liberal pair of yuppies, recently wed, named Chris (Patrick Wilson, in another tirelessly decent performance) and Lisa (Kerry Washington, also solid).  Abel hates them from the very start.  Why?  They are an interracial couple - Chris being white, Lisa being black - and they represent a clear threat to his segregationist agenda for his own upbringing of his kids.  There are attempts on Chris’ part to make nice with Abel, but he is quickly turned off by his peculiar brand of acceptance.  One evening in particular sets the film in motion, and also really sends Abel into a fit of angry hostility.  He comes home one evening and sees that his children are spying on Chris and Lisa…while they are naked in their pool having sex.  To Abel, this is the straw the broke the camel’s back, and he uses it as a validation for him engaging on a relentlessly cruel and savage plan of psychological warfare against the couple in order to get them to move out and away from him…for good. 

The setup of LAKEVIEW TERRACE, at least, is intriguing.  The initial verbal sparring that Abel engages in with the well meaning, but hopelessly in over his head, Chris is involving and creates tension.  A more intrinsically compelling choice for the film would be to make both men harsh victims of their respective and escalating prejudices against one another.  TERRACE, unfortunately, takes the easiest route possible by making Jackson’s Abel a total whack-job that goes from internalized and anti-social figure to one of pure, black militant, white hating degenerate.  Of course, we are also offered up a series of rudimentary and inanely predictable set pieces where we see Abel concoct his obligatory plan to terrorize the couple with mind games large and small in manners that grow increasingly absurd by the minute.  It’s the type of preordained cat n’ mouse game of will and determination that we’ve seen countless times before, and here it is just as bland:  evil neighbor terrorizes another good neighbor, good neighbor grows increasingly despondent and bitter in return, so much so that he too engages in a plan to wage war on the bad neighbor, culminating in scenes where loved ones get hurt or threatened and the two battle it out in a third act showdown.  Tic-tack-toe.

I guess I would be willing to forgive LAKEVIEW TERRACE as a cheap, manipulative, and seedy throwaway thriller that is entertainingly stupid and unintentional ludicrous.  Yet, there is something really unsavory and off-putting about the film’s moral agenda and message.  What’s polarizing is that the film is trying to be sobering and thoughtful with its racially heated themes, but it comes off as just the opposite.  The film goes out of its way to paint the middle-class black man as the foaming at the mouth villain and the preppy, Liberal, tree-hugging white upper class yuppie as the ultimate righteous hero.  Yes, making a film that deals with black racists would be captivating, but TERRACE is as offensive minded as it is absurd.  The whole lesson it offers up is that the root of all evil in the world is a psychotic and teeth-clenched black man that goes bonkers when he – gasp! – sees a successful white man score with a black woman.  LAKEVIEW TERRACE’s belief that it’s being progressive minded is paradoxically offensive, seeing as its message is clouded over by the fact that it's archaic and backwards with its ideologies.  The film’s racial politics and peculiar brand of ethical sermonizing is kind of teeth grating. 

Even more off-putting is the film’s use of a natural disaster in what has to be the silliest usage of a disaster to settle and close a story I’ve seen.  In the background throughout the film we see that it is wildfire season in California and the fires, although initially far off in the distance from Chris and Lisa’s home, grow ominously closer to them as the film progresses to its third act.  The symbolism here is really half-baked and asinine (oooohh…the escalating flames represents the escalating heat of Chris' battles with Abel, how clever!) but then the script manipulatively uses this calamity as a way to bring the film to an emotional boil in its final few minutes, which also very conveniently allows Abel to cover his dastardly tracks.  And just how convenient is it when a sister character of Abel's - who shows up and vanishes without ever reappearing again - is brought in to take his children away for the added convenience of the final moments of the film.

If this were not outlandish enough, we are given one final act on Abel’s part of pure lunacy where he carelessly uses a cell phone to put in motions the checkmate of his  “destroy Chris’ life” game.  And then…jeepers…we have a final standoff sequence involving the usual verbal jabs, fisticuffs, and violent outbursts, where both antagonist and protagonist have a head to head physical battle that serves to implode the movie altogether.  

Again, all of this begs me to ask why wouldn’t the Dockers-clad wuss of an uptight snob that is Chris not sell his home and relocate upon the first detection that his neighbor was a full-fledged sociopath hell bent on decimating his family’s happiness?  Beat’s me.  Okay, so the film’s logic is stunningly shaky, and the script is mechanical and paint-by-numbers that never once harnesses its initially compelling premise with any reasonable proficiency.  Yet, what’s really, truly wrong with LAKEVIEW TERRACE is that it’s made by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker with a usually impeccable eye for painting social unease, stars great actors doing excellent work (Jackson fits the role to a tee, and Wilson, after searing work in LITTLE CHILDREN and HARD CANDY, is emerging as one of our more natural talents), and has Will Smith producing.  I guess what I don’t understand is how Jackson and Smith saw meaning in LAKEVIEW TERRACE, considering that it disgracefully presents a warped worldview of its main African American character.  

It’s just wrong, I tell’s ya

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