Theatrical Review: Nick Cassavetes
' Alpha Dog is an infuriating misfire that would have been much more easily overlooked had it managed to stay true to one vision or the other; instead, Cassavetes (who also wrote the screenplay) keeps one foot in the teen-exploitation camp and another in the hardboiled true crime camp, never quite making up his mind which way to go. For every moment that plays real there are at least two that absolutely do not, producing a wildly schizophrenic film that has many chances at greatness and misses nearly all of them.
The pugilistic script is based on one of those fascinatingly ugly crime stories that come rocketing out of Southern California every now and again, to much clucking of tongues over wayward and rudderless youth. Following the sad state of events that leads a drug dealer to kidnap the younger brother of a client who owes him money, as a means of extracting said payment, the film traces how the kidnapped teenager (a momma's boy who yearns for rebellion) develops a horribly overwrought case of Stockholm Syndrome, earnestly believing he's just having a good time with the dealer's hard-partying friends. In fact, while the kids party like it's 1999 (the year the kidnapping actually took place), imbibing copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, the dealer, Johnny (Emile Hirsch
, like an evil version of Turtle from Entourage) is panicking, having realized what he's gotten himself into. Article continues below
Cassavetes tries extremely hard to give Alpha Dog an aura of credibility, which it rarely comes close to attaining -- even if lawyers for the ongoing litigation that resulted from this real-life case prompted lawyers to try and block the film's screening at last year's Sundance. From the moment the kidnapping takes place, documentary-like freeze frames happen every now and again to identify people in the background as witnesses. This would be easier to buy if the film were taken straight from the case files that Cassavetes was given access to, which it obviously isn't (much of the drama is imagined, and at least a few of the main characters' names have been changed).
The bulk of Alpha Dog indulges in grade-C SoCal exploitation -- endless pot-soaked parties with trash-talking white wannabe gangsters and their nubile molls -- that, given how many real people are represented here, quickly crosses the line into recklessness. It's beside the point, as in a scene where the kidnapped kid, Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin
), loses his virginity to a pair of blondes in a swimming pool; Cassavetes had well established Zack's reasons for not escaping when he could without needing to venture into an R-rated version of The O.C., which the film resembles on more than one occasion.
The truest moments that register in Alpha Dog involve Zack's relationship with Johnny's buddy Frankie, played with surprising assuredness by Justin Timberlake
as someone who thinks he's a better guy than he is: playing cool big brother when he should be telling Zack to escape. The potency of this friendship, however, bears little relation to the rest of the film, where caricatures like Sharon Stone
(playing Zack's mom as a shrieking harridan) and an energetic but poorly directed Ben Foster
(as Zack's speed-freak older brother) go bouncing off the walls to often laughable effect. Rebel Without A Cause it ain't.