Monday, September 22, 2008
Exit politics, enter histrionics
This weekend I went to see Lakeview Terrace, the new drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as an ornery cop who harasses his new neighbors, an interracial couple played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington. Though the movie earned poor reviews, I still thought the subject matter looked interesting, and Patrick Wilson didn't hurt, either. (I've been in love with this guy since Angels in America. He's damned talented, too.) I myself found the movie to be enjoyable and relatively well done, although I agree with critics' assertions that Neil LaBute's movie (his first time directing someone else's script) just scratches the surface of the provocative issues it raises-- and ultimately devolves into a fairly typical Hollywood potboiler, rather than a truly insightful look at race relations. (At least it's less pompous than the overblown and overrated Crash, which acted like it was the Definitive Look at Race in America-- when in reality it was pretty much a glorified soap opera about bitchy Los Angelenos.) Tellingly, the movie opens not with our nominal heroes, Chris and Lisa (Wilson and Washington) but on Abel Turner (Jackson). One morning Abel wakes up to find new neighbors moving in next door. He watches them with a quiet, nosey intensity; first he thinks it's a May-December couple, as Lisa giddily shows the place to her dad Ron (Harold Perreau). But when he realizes the white "mover" is actually the husband, his surprise and disapproval are written all over his face. Abel introduces himself to Chris with an unsettling car-jacker fake out, then drops some passive aggressive comments about his rap music. "No matter how much of that noise you listen to, when you wake up in the morning, you'll still be white," Turner says. (No, it's not a subtle picture.) Before long, Abel is needling his neighbors left and right, with everything from piercing security lights that he refuses to turn off to a blunt directive that Chris and his wife should move somewhere else. At Chris and Lisa's dinner party, Turner manages to demean and embarrass virtually everyone present within a few minutes. The couple try to fight back, or at least learn to live with the hostility, but events inevitably come to a head-- exit racial politics, enter thriller histrionics. The film is essentially built around Jackson's performance: at this point, he can do this type of steely, aggressive character in his sleep, and the part is by far the most developed one in the movie. We get some insights into what drives him (his grief over his wife proves particularly trenchant), even if we still don't like him. Chris and Lisa, on the other hand, are likable but bland; the actors have good chemistry and bring what they can to their characters, but there's ultimately not much for them to do but react to Abel and have fights with each other. The arguments are generic and shed little light on the very real difficulties interracial relationships can pose; those issues were better explored in 2006's romantic dramedy Something New, with Sanaa Lathaan and Simon Baker. More interesting is the subplot involving Abel's two children; in one scene, Celia (Regine Nehy) and Lisa share a sweet vignette by the pool, only to have it violently interrupted by Abel, who wants to know what his neighbor is "teaching" his daughter. It's too bad the kids vanish from the film with little resolution (shortly before the climax); the narrative of their rocky relationship with Dad could have been a bit more profound than the film's central conflict. In the end, we're left with a decent enough movie that tackles important, rarely handled issues, but on a fairly surface level. Lakeview Terrace is passable entertainment with a higher-than-average IQ, but it could've been so much more.