Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lakeview Terrace

In 1989, Spike Lee made “Do The Right Thing,” a frank, witty, yet ultimately sad and shocking portrait of racial tensions in New York City. So masterful was the film that any subsequent depiction of racism has inevitably been compared to it. This may seem unfair, but given how many movies use it as a guideline it’s somewhat appropriate. Such is the case with this initially promising thriller, which steals a number of devices from Lee’s opus but delivers a clunky, stereotypical product.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Patrick Wilson, “Lakeview Terrace” pits an interracial couple, Chris and Lisa (played by Wilson and Kerry Washington), against their police officer neighbor, Abel Turner (Jackson). Chris and Lisa move in next door, and Abel wastes no time making them feel unwelcome. Turner is every bit Hollywood’s idea of the non-stereotypical “urban” black man: he prays every morning, hates rap, and ensures that his children use proper grammar. It’s like they ran down a checklist of black stereotypes, and just did the opposite thinking it would make a fleshed-out character. He’s also astonishingly racist - he makes offensive statements at parties and has nothing but disgust on his face when he sees the next-door couple.

Turner makes a nice foil for Chris, the rap loving, easygoing Berkeley grad who must have trouble standing up straight with all the white liberal guilt on his shoulders like a politically correct Atlas. Whenever he tries to confront his new neighbor, he quickly backs down and walks away with his tail between his legs. Even when he says to his wife that black men constantly disapprove of his their relationship, he whispers it as if telling an offensive joke in a crowded restaurant. Eventually he fights back, and the story escalates into from the tense to the ridiculous.

Most of the film’s positive aspects can be attributed to Jackson. He has what physicians refer to as “the crazy eyes.” His facial expressions run the gamut of craziness: he’s insanely happy, insanely angry, insanely contemplative, insanely surprised (often with a tinge of insanely angry), and - this is the best one - insanely crazy. He’s the kind of person you’d never want to hear the words “good night” from because coming from him they give off the strong implication that morning isn’t coming. Even if Chris wasn’t such a spineless wuss I doubt he could possibly stare Abel down.

Neil LaBute, an accomplished writer and playwright renowned for creating stories about misogynistic men who slowly reveal their sadistic tendencies, directed the film, but you’d never know it. Had LaBute written the script, “Lakeview Terrace” might have gently unfolded, gradually mounting tension until you suddenly found yourself in a horrific situation.

For a time, this film is interesting; the first two acts let Chris and Abel’s little turf war escalate as a forest fire inches nearer (a blatant nod to “Do The Right Thing’s” heat wave), but the final 45 minutes are pure B-movie nonsense. Abel’s motivation for his racial hate is absurd and harkens back to a time when racism was socially acceptable rather than the subtler way it still exists. Some of the things he does to mess with the couple are just plain ridiculous; for instance, he mails a video of a clearly-struggling Chris unwittingly receiving a lap dance from a stripper at a bachelor party to Lisa, as if seeing her husband pinned to the ground by three cops and forced to let a stripper dance for him will lead to a divorce or even sow doubt. Once Jackson starts yelling things like “I’m the police! You have to do what I say!” it’s all over.

This film was probably doomed from the start. Even its trailer veered so close to camp I didn’t know when I went in whether I’d get a black comedy or a thriller. After seeing it, I still don’t. The idea of being terrorized by a cop is interesting, as is a study of modern racism. However, the script is constantly at odds with the director; LaBute wants to take his time and let the hatred simmer, while the script thinks it’s adding a twist to race study by making the black person racist instead of the white guy. It strives to be a thriller version of “Do The Right Thing,” but instead has all the heavy-handedness of the last big racial drama, “Crash.” It’s a bad dissection of race relations because everyone conforms to some sort of stereotype, and it’s a bad thriller because all the lines got big laughs from the audience I was in when they should have been gripping their seats.

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