Their neighbor, a widower, a single dad with two daughters, a veteran LAPD officer named Abel Turner, is played by African American movie star Samuel L. Jackson. For whatever reason, the sight of a white guy and a black woman disturbs Abel to no end. From Day 1, he makes things unpleasant for Chris. By Day 3, it's a full-on assault. And who are the Mattsons going to call? The cops?
For a while, LaBute and his cast manage to stir up legitimate tension with Abel's passive-aggressive tactics and "friendly" sidewalk chats. Chris, pulling up in the driveway after a day of work, his car stereo system blasting, gets this from Abel, leaning into the window: "You can listen to that rap music all night long. In the morning, you'll still wake up white."
But although there's effort made to explain Abel's bigotry - he's stressed out on the job, he's stressed out at home trying to raise two girls - it's not enough to compensate for the stereotyping going on all around. Wilson, who was so compelling in the disturbing suburban drama Little Children, never rises above Bland White Guy caricature as Chris. The beautiful Washington has less luck with her Lisa: Her job - she works at home - is never defined, nor is her personality. The Mattsons are just your typical young, upwardly mobile couple, in pursuit of the American dream. Ho-hum.
Lakeview Terrace tries to use one of Southern California's periodic droughts, and the ensuing wildfires, as a metaphorical backdrop to create a mood of unnerving dread. But by the time the film's frantic, far-fetched climax comes along - a night involving a gun, strippers, humiliation, and a home invasion gone seriously awry - Lakeview Terrace's pretense at exploring racial intolerance has been exposed for what it really is: a B-movie copout.
Lakeview Terrace ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Neil LaBute. With Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson. Distributed by Screen Gems/Sony.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sex, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.