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‘Terrace’ pretends to have something to say

For all its trappings of having something to say about race, this Neil LaBute thriller is a cheesy B-movie at its cynical heart

Remember the spate of “from Hell” movies of the late 1980s and early ’90s, about psychopaths who would insinuate themselves into your life and then wreak havoc? It all started with the “mistress from Hell” (“Fatal Attraction”) but quickly spun off into the “nanny from Hell” (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), the “roommate from Hell” (“Single White Female”) and the “nymphet next door from Hell” (“The Crush”), among many others.

One of the lesser entries into this quickly-overplayed genre was the “cop neighbor from Hell” thriller “Unlawful Entry,” with Ray Liotta as the man in blue terrorizing suburbanites Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe. It wasn’t a great movie, but at least it knew exactly that kind of shameless thriller it was and didn’t try to convince the audience that it had something to say about police brutality or the fragility of marriage or anything.

If only “Lakeview Terrace” could have been as honest about its intentions. This schlocky suspense flick about African-American L.A. cop Sam Jackson blowing a gasket when a mixed-race couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door is no deeper than “Unlawful Entry,” but oh, how it wants you to think it has some resonant message about race in the post-riot, new-millennial Los Angeles.

It’s not like the film couldn’t have taken a more ambitious tack — director Neil LaBute has certainly made provocative films about gender politics (his laughable remake of “The Wicker Man” notwithstanding) and co-screenwriter Howard Korder’s plays (like “Boys’ Life” and “Fun”) have brilliantly punctured suburban anomie. Too bad the result of their labor plays out like Cordon Bleu chefs covering a shift at a McDonald’s.

“Lakeview Terrace” does have its cheap thrills, mostly revolving around Jackson playing head games with Wilson and Washington and orchestrating all kinds of cleverly nasty tricks to make them move out. By showing the couple’s marriage as somewhat incommunicative and volatile, however, the film doesn’t put a lot at stake — the way this husband and wife are portrayed, they’d be coming apart at the seams even if they’d moved next door to a vacant lot.

Most disappointing is the fact that writers Korder and David Loughery couldn’t resist giving us the scene where Jackson explains to Wilson (and the audience) exactly why he’s got it in for the couple, wrapping his motivations up in a tidy bow and explaining away any of the complicated, messy impulses that an actual human being might have. That moment feels like the worst of old Hollywood, where everything has to be underlined and the villain’s raison d’être has to be fully laid-out before good triumphs over evil.

Jackson skirts the edge of going overboard with his portrayal, widening his eyes so much at times that you expect him to start foaming at the mouth and fulminating about “race mixing” and “miscegenation.” If an actor this talented is going to slum it in hokey, over-the-top thrillers, I’d prefer he direct his anger at those mother-effing snakes on that mother-effing plane.