Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Alpha Dog

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Olivia Wilde, Dominique Swain, Amanda Seyfried

Running Time: 117 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Yes, Justin Timberlake can act. Going into Alpha Dog that seemed to be the question on everyone's mind, myself included. He's not asked to do anything too demanding, but toward the end he gets to do some emotionally heavy lifting and pulls it all off really well. Is he just playing himself? Maybe, but every actor brings who they are to a role, or at least some version of it. He's one of the highlights of the film and when it ended I was curious what he'd be capable of if given even heftier material to work with. For a while I thought this film would supply that, but it doesn't take itself seriously enough which is fine because it's just not that kind of movie anyway. Alpha Dog is instead a stylishly made guilty pleasure that's a lot of fun. It's cinematic trash and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The story had the potential to be a little more, but as we head toward the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion it becomes clear writer and director Nick Cassavettes isn't interested in that. We start to really care about these kids, but he pulls back at just the wrong time to bombard us with visual tricks and gimmicks, including a very ill advised cosmetic one involving a major actress that comes late in the film. Still, it's a blast and anyone looking to be entertained won't be let down.

Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood a notorious drug dealer who became one of the youngest men ever to appear on the F.B.I.'s most wanted list. In this film we find out how. Here, all the names are changed to protect the innocent, or not so innocent, as Jesse James becomes Johnny Truelove. He's played well by Emile Hirsch, in a performance some people will undoubtedly have problems with. I didn't. He has a huge posse which includes but isn't limited to his right hand man Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake), kiss ass Elvis Schmidt (Eddie Vedder look alike Shawn Hatosy) and his hot girlfriend Angela Holden (The O.C's Olivia Wilde). When Johnny has a major falling out with one of his premiere customers, loose cannon Jake Mazursky (an explosive Ben Foster), seemingly by accident Johnny and Frankie kidnap Jake's 15 year-old-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and shove him in the back of their van. They hold him for ransom even though they never really make any ransom demands and have no idea what they're doing.

The irony of this "kidnapping" is it's the best thing to ever happen to the shy, introverted Zack who's smothered daily by his mother Olivia (Sharon Stone) and isn't even allowed to leave the front stoop of their house. With these guys he finally fits in as he's exposed to drinking, drugs, three ways and basically everything else California teens do on a daily basis that he can't. What's neat about the film is that it exposes the parents as being every bit as irresponsible and stupid as their kids as they have sex in front of them and grow pot in their backyards.

Watch when Foster's character storms into his dad's house high out of his mind demanding money and dad can't even bring himself to say no. Symbolic of this epidemic is Johnny's father, notorious mob boss Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis in what amounts to a cameo role) and his grandfather Cosmo (the great Harry Dean Stanton) who've spent their lives cheering on his behavior until now. Now things have gotten too heavy even for them. With kids going around all day playing Scarface, real life was bound to catch up with them at some point. Everyone's in over their heads.

What ends up being the surprisingly touching relationship at the center of the film is the one between young Zack and Frankie, who's been put in charge by Johnny to look after the kid. Resistant at first, Frankie grows to like him and becomes kind of his de facto big brother. Zack idolizes him and because we get to see all these messed up kids through Zack's eyes it actually kind of humanizes them and the movie. It helps that Yelchin gives a quiet, unassuming, and likeable performance. He actually comes across as a little brother you'd want to have. Timberlake also really steps up in this third act, suggesting the film was going places deeper than I initially thought. Unfortunately though, it doesn't.

The decision Johnny makes as to what should happen to this kid, while without question morally wrong, also makes little sense. How anyone, even a kid this wreckless and stupid, could possibly think that this is the best way out of this situation for everyone involved (especially him) is unfathomable. I realize this is based on a true story, but that doesn't make what the characters do in this movie any more believable or make it less disappointing. Cassavettes had the information and it was his responsibility to present it in a way onscreen that would ring true. He'll probably be excused by most on this one since this is how it supposedly went down in real life, but he can't be excused for what follows.

Just after the most dramatic and emotionally gut wrenching moment in the film we're treated to a Sharon Stone scene that hits every wrong note imaginable. It would have been better placed in The Nutty Professor or Norbit. I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. It's a shame too because Stone does good work in the film and didn't deserve to be humiliated like this. Without giving too much away, let's just say Cassavetes could have gotten the effect he wanted out of the scene without resorting to this trickery. That it stands out as campy and unintentionally hilarious in a film that includes a cameo from Growing Pains' Alan Thicke is quite an accomplishment.

Even though it's Timberlake who steals the show, Emile Hirsch continues his string of strong performances with his work here, even if in the minds of many he doesn't exactly look the part. I think that was point and it's even questioned during the film why everyone fears and is frightened by this scrawny little kid. He looks young but Hirsch carries himself in such a way that he can pull it off believably, and does. In many ways his Johnny Truelove is very similar to skateboarder Jay Adams, whom he portrayed in 2005's The Lords of Dogtown. Both are egomaniacs desperate for respect and attention and afraid they'll be exposed as frauds. Truelove is even more a product of his own twisted environment.

Had this movie dug deeper and really explored the issues it brought up, Ben Foster's strung-out performance as Jake probably would have gotten more respect and possibly awards consideration. As it stands though, it instead makes for an entertaining and often times frighteningly hilarious diversion. He has a fight scene that's so over-the-top you can't help but cheer, and there were many times during the film where I wondered if Foster was really on something. That's how believable he is as an out of control addict. I should mention there are also a lot of girls in this movie. A lot. So many that it's hard for any of them to really make a lasting impression. Wilde seemed like she was just there for decoration, while Domique Swain gets to yell and shriek most of the time. The only two you'll remember (and for good reason) are Amanda Seyfried and Amber Heard, who break-in young Zack during a memorable pool scene.

Of course the easy joke here is that John Cassavetes is probably rolling over in his grave right now at the film his son Nick directed. I don't think that's fair. Every filmmmaker has their own strengths and weaknesses and while the elder Cassavetes' strengths may have resided in intimate character portraits, it's clear between this, John Q. and The Notebook that Nick's talent lies in mainstream popcorn audience pleasers. There's nothing wrong with that. He shouldn't be expected to follow in his legendary father's footsteps, nor would it benefit him to.

There were times during the film where I wished Cassavetes would just tell the story in a meaningful way instead of hiding behind fat suits, split screen technology and title cards telling us the name and number of witnesses as they appear onscreen. For some reason I expected the latter to pay off in some way at the end of the film but it never really went anywhere. It's just a gimmick. In any event, this movie does now hold the infamous honor of coming in fourth all-time for the amount of "F-bombs" dropped in a motion picture. That's a telling fact. Alpha Dog could have been more, but it couldn't have possibly been any more fun.

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