Photograph by Chuck Zlotnick UNWELCOME WAGON: Samuel L. Jackson's cop doesn't love his neighbors in 'Lakeview Terrace.'
Neil LaBute's 'Lakeview Terrace' gives us straw men in a 'Straw Dogs' situation
By Richard von Busack
AS CRITIC David Thomson said about Vincent Price, Samuel L. Jackson is an actor with a sweet tooth. In small doses, Jackson can be inexpressibly delightful. Sometimes, it seems as if Jackson is contractually obligated to show his theatrical side, to turn up with a limp, a facial burn, an eye patch, a smoking jacket, a cane or a fake grill. I don't think that he has done a peg-leg part yet, but certainly he's game for it. In Lakeview Terrace, Overactin' Jackson plays it serious, so he limits himself to the tattoo of an LAPD badge on his shoulder.
David Loughery and Howard Korder's script for Lakeview Terrace is apparently based on a real-life story of Irsie Henry, an African American former LAPD cop living in the Pasadena suburb of Altadena. Henry was accused of harassing his neighbors, an interracial couple. It was a matter of legal debate whether the ex-cop was doing this because of prejudice. Director Neil LaBute, expanding this into a sociological story of black-on-white prejudice, doesn't give the fictional tale the ring of truth. The focus, which ought to be about one man's obsessive mad quirk, goes all Stanley Kramer in its exploration of prejudice.
It really looks like someone took an ordinary Rod Steiger–type simmering-racist script and gave it the old switcheroo. This time, the liberals—gentle paragons who try to defy this maniac cop living next door—don't even have the law on their side. No one seems to notice that the story plays on the edge of evil comedy. In real life, a pepper spraying was the last straw, rather than the mortal consequences seen in Lakeview Terrace. And a jury acquitted Henry even of the pepper-spray-assault charges.
Jackson's big acting has already raised questions at the IMDb forums about whether Lakeview Terrace is a flat-out comedy. Sometimes, Jackson may not be sure himself, which is a common thread in his film career. (You can imagine the film with the late Bernie Mac in Jackson's role, especially when the copper is treating his kids with tough love.)
It's a heat wave in L.A., and the hills are alight with seasonal brush fires. A posh black/white Northern California couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), move in next to the house of LAPD officer Abel Turner. Turner is raising two kids, and he is a draconianly strict single father. When Turner reminds his daughter (Regine Nehy) of one of his rules, she replies, "Which one? You have so many."
The Mattsons are loose, liberal Prius drivers, the kind that make love in their swimming pool. They go against Turner's grain. A war starts between them. The cop lights up their nights with his anti-theft floodlights; he chops down their shrubs with a chain saw when they put up a privacy screen. Matters worsen when Abel brings in fellow cops for a wild party, and the visiting stripper throws Chris down and rides him. Naturally a tape of this event gets into Lisa's hands.
As we've seen in LaBute's cinema, this is a director who is not at home with physical desire. The scene of the married couple joking about playing with handcuffs has tangible discomfort in it: the discomfort goes far beyond the matter of two actors dispatching a very old joke. In The Company of Men and his later films, LaBute made his name with scripts that argue that sex is just a power play by another name. This script takes an easy avenue on strife—Lisa wants a kid, Chris doesn't—to give us a possible wedge. In the movies, when a man doesn't want a child, it's because he's less than a man.
Lisa and Chris seem to have some sort of sense of humor about being biracial. They put up a poster for the Godfrey Cambridge movie Watermelon Man in their living room, for example. Lisa's overbearing father (Ron Glass, the grave Shepherd from Serenity) has sort of a muddled part: is he overprotective or does he just not approve of the son-in-law? Is it because he's white or he's a weakling? Could be the latter. Wilson shows that handsome but spineless quality he manifested in Little Children.
It makes logistic sense that a police officer might want to draw a line between his home and the dirtier world outside. This is the realistic part of Lakeview Terrace, and the part that Jackson makes work. It makes less sense that Turner would use his contacts from the criminal world in his war against his two-toned neighbors.
There's an aspect of overproduction to this film; a mountain cul-de-sac isn't the kind of place a uniformed LAPD cop affords (the real-life Altadena has a higher funk factor). Thus the filmmakers have to add a line about all the overtime he did to afford the place. Lakeview Terrace is like that throughout. The story adds up, but the details are all wrong.
Maybe the insistence on a culture-war angle is part of the illogicality of the film, such as Turner's deliberate misunderstanding of Chris' small talk about global warming as racist ("It's hot in Africa"). The pusillanimous liberal who must fight like a man for his home is a story we've had before, and better.
In a film about the abrasion of nerves, Wilson is not up to Jackson's weight as a fighter. There was no one moment where the movie lost me, though one where Jackson licked his lips to show lust for Lisa might have been it. Trying to play Iago and Othello at the same time is a stretch for any actor, even Jackson, and Lakeview Terrace shows one fine urban thespian at his limits.
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