Alpha Dog

2007, Movie, R, 117 mins


Art imitated life too closely for the comfort of lawyers representing Jesse James Hollywood, the Santa Barbara 20-year-old who is the youngest suspect ever to make the FBI's most wanted list. Hollywood's lawyers sought to halt distribution of director Nick Cassavetes' movie about Hollywood's alleged criminal exploits, including the 2000 kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old, claiming it would be prejudicial to Hollywood's case. After stewing in legal limbo for nearly a year, judges finally OK'd the film's release. And while not a great film, it turns out that the verisimilitude that caused Cassavetes so many problems also makes his dark comedy a worthy addition to the ranks of suburban youth pics like OVER THE EDGE, RIVER'S EDGE and Larry Clark's salacious BULLY.

With all the names changed to protect those who would eventually be found guilty, the tale unfolds in the cushy environs of Claremont, California, circa 1999. Hollywood's alter ego is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), the out-of-control son of So Cal bad-ass Sonny Truelove (a toupee'd Bruce Willis). Johnny and the crew of gangsta wannabes that he leads with an effective combination of bonhomie and intimidation are mostly white, upper-middle class and enamored of the gold-plated lifestyle they see in rap videos. They're also entirely free of parental control. Johnny's top lieutenant is Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), the son of a hard-partying businessman who grows his own pot. Johnny's bitch is Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), an eager-to-please doormat who would do anything his master asked of him. Unlike Elvis, who's slavishly working off money that he owes Johnny, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a twitchy, temperamental Jewish skinhead, still owes his former friend $1,200 and refuses to pay up. Johnny and Jake are soon locked in a game of escalating top-dog brinkmanship that culminates in Johnny and his boys doing something impulsive and very stupid: They kidnap Jake's 15-year-old half brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin). Zack, it turns out, is more than happy to escape his controlling mother (Sharon Stone), the only parent who appears to have any interest in what her child is up to, and his milquetoast father (David Thornton), and instead party it up with girls (including Dominique Swain), drugs and Frankie, whom he winds up befriending. But as the days pass and Zack's parents grow increasingly panicked, Johnny realizes that if Zack is ever allowed to return home, he and his friends are looking at kidnapping charges and a possible life sentence. Clearly, something drastic needs to be done.

Taking a detached approach to the material, Cassavetes fashions an ironic commentary on how the authority vacuum left by immature, self-involved parents is soon filled by a dangerous power structure of their children's own devising. Certain filmmaking choices range from questionable (Sharon Stone) to downright awful (Sharon Stone in a fat suit), but in most areas, Cassavetes' instincts are spot-on, particularly when it comes to casting Timberlake in what turns out to be the most important role in the film. He manages to be both reprehensible and deeply charismatic, and winds up stealing the picture. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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