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Racial tension lives nextdoor in Neil LaBute's Lakeview Terrace

Earlier this year, when I found myself assigned to jury duty on a drug-related trial at the Los Angeles Superior Court, our jury foreman turned out to be a blond, blue-eyed reality-TV producer from the bedroom community of Altadena. During the jury-selection process, when the judge asked if we had any particular positive or negative feelings about the police, the producer responded that he was very pleased with the work of the LAPD, who had helped to rid his neighborhood of some unsavory characters prone to "smoking marijuana and listening to hip-hop" at unconscionable hours of the day and night. This, in turn, elicited rolled eyes and an audible huff from a young African-American man also seated in the jury box. Lakeview Terrace is a movie that lives in such moments.

Set in the titular suburb of Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley — the one where Rodney King was assaulted by police in 1991 — the movie is about the troubles that arise when a newlywed interracial couple moves in next door to a widowed African-American cop with three decades of service under his belt. There goes the neighborhood.

Lakeview Terrace begins with a shrewd moving-in scene, during which LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) glances out his window at the new arrivals and briefly mistakes Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson), the jocular white husband of an alluring, well-dressed black woman (Kerry Washington), for one of the movers. Later, they meet cute in the driveway — Chris smoking a covert cigarette behind the wife's back while rap blares from his iPod, until Abel taps on his car window, flashlight in hand. "You can listen to that noise all night long, but when you wake up in the morning, you'll still be white," the cop says before uttering a forced chuckle. Things only get more Pacific Heights from there. Turner's megawatt security lights illuminate the Mattson bedroom like a football field; air-conditioner wires are not-so-mysteriously cut; tires are slashed. When someone breaks into the garage in the middle of the night, Chris arms himself with his college lacrosse stick before going to investigate. Can you get any whiter than that?

Because it's being marketed as a run-of-the-mill psycho-cop romp, Lake-view Terrace will most likely be evaluated solely on those terms. And as a suspense picture, it's only ho-hum, LaBute being the sort of director — much like fellow playwright-filmmaker David Mamet — who possesses only the most rudimentary know-how concerning the tools of cinema. (When he really wants to emphasize something, he cuts to a close-up and adds a musical sting on the soundtrack.) But like a lot of better genre fare, Lakeview Terrace uses its predictable premise to mount a stealth attack on the audience's sensibilities. Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder, this may be the perfect movie for the political moment, in that it's about people's latent prejudices — the ones they don't admit to in mixed company, and perhaps can't even acknowledge to themselves.

Lakeview Terrace never quite realizes when enough is enough, hunkering down the narrative with an overly symbolic brush fire that threatens our picture-postcard suburbia, giving Jackson's character an unnecessary backstory and culminating in a finale full of ethereal light and crucifix poses. But along the way, it's one of those rare American movies about race in which things are shades of gray. Rather deftly, there's even a car crash or two, though that doesn't bring the movie's characters closer to a shared understanding. Can't we all just get along? LaBute doesn't deign to pretend that he knows the answer.

 
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