Listlessness jumps from ‘Lakeview Terrace'

Has Neil LaBute lost it?

The writer-director of merciless provocations such as “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “The Shape of Things” is suddenly one movie away from hack status. In his last film, a remake of “The Wicker Man,” he had Nicolas Cage running around slugging women in the face while dressed in a bear suit.

In his new picture, “Lakeview Terrace,” he casts Samuel L. Jackson as a Los Angeles Police Department officer who disapproves violently of the interracial couple next door. The movie is purportedly a thriller, a la “Unlawful Entry” or “Pacific Heights,” but the whole thing is so listless and mechanical, watching it is a curiously dispiriting experience. You start hoping someone whips out a bear suit.

LaBute didn't write “Lakeview Terrace” himself: The screenplay is by Howard Korder and David Loughery, whose last screen credit (for “Money Train”) came 13 years ago. “Lakeview Terrace” feels like something that has been kicking around that long, with a severe datedness afflicting its depiction of monstrously racist L.A. cops.

Producers Will Smith and James Lassiter presumably brought LaBute on board for his nimbleness in exploring the darker, crueler sides of human nature. But “Lakeview Terrace” isn't so much interested in psychology as it is in hackneyed thrills. The movie starts out promisingly, setting up its premise from the point of view of Abel (Jackson), a single father raising two children who is obviously stern but far from a cretin.

Abel's initial interactions with his two new neighbors (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) carry just the right amount of intimidating menace: We don't know exactly what Abel's problem is with a white man marrying a black woman, or why he makes it his mission to make life hard for the couple by keeping his security lights on all night or messing with their air conditioner.

But the higher the tensions escalate, and the more drastic the characters' actions become, the sillier “Lakeview Terrace” gets. By the time we get to the scene in which Jackson delivers a monologue explaining Abel's motivations, the movie has become downright hokey: In an attempt to make the villain a believable, semi-tragic figure, the film succeeds only in revealing its shallowness.

With symbolic brush fires raging out of control nearby, the war between the neighbors worsens, eventually culminating with someone pulling a gun – as you always knew it would. Long before that point, “Lakeview Terrace” has joined the nondescript ranks of countless movies in which otherwise happy suburbanites are tormented by an outsider, until they reach their breaking point and decide to fight back.

The most disappointing thing about the movie is that it was directed by LaBute. That turns out to not make any difference.