Alpha DogReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/12/07 16:29:02
“Alpha Dog” is a cautionary tale of youth run wild and the dangers of inattentive parenting that is so painfully irritating on every conceivable level that it gives a bad name to cautionary tales of youth running wild, the dangers of inattentive parenting and bad names. Essentially an overlong “After-School Special,” albeit one with less depth and more F-bombs, this is a smug, shallow and absurdly stylized stew of bully-boy bollocks that winds up wallowing in the very symbols of cultural excess that it claims to criticize. Even though we are less than two weeks into the new year, here is a film that is already a strong contender for the title of Worst Film of 2007.Emile Hirsch stars as Johnny Truelove, a young drug dealer whose easy access to dope and money has made him the center of attention of a group of suburban L.A. morons–including glad-handing party guy Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) and doormat Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy) who spend their days pumping iron, smoking dope and hurling homophobic insults at each other in a desperate effort to convince each other that they are indeed keeping it real. One person decidedly not in that inner circle is Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a speed freak who winds up going to war with Johnny regarding a deal gone bad and a $2500 debt. Unlike the rest of Johnny’s associates, who see him as some kind of mesmerizing figure, Jake correctly pegs Johnny as someone who is nothing but talk and goes so far as to break into the guy’s house, steal his television and leave an unsavory gift on the living room carpet as a sign of disrespect. The next day, Johnny is out driving around with a couple of friends and happens to spot Jake’s beloved younger brother, Zach (Anton Yelchin)walking down the street and impulsively decides to snatch him to use as a marker in order to force Jake to pay back the money he owes.
Inevitably, the fact that Johnny has essentially kidnapped someone doesn’t seem to faze anyone in the slightest–even the victim himself is perfectly happy to be out from under the thumb of his wildly possessive mother (Sharon Stone). For the next couple of days, in fact, Frankie takes Zach under his wing for a couple of days of booze, pot and wild parties where practically everyone finds his standing as a hostage to be exciting–a couple of hotties even go so far as to take the 15-year-old out to the swimming pool for a round of Marco Polo using rules laid down by Zalman King. Eventually, grim reality begins to cut through the pot-induced haze that surrounds Johnny and the others and it begins to dawn on them that if they let Zach go and he spills the beans on where he has been, they are all looking at some major prison time. Basically, they have two choices–turn themselves in and face up to the consequences of their actions or kill Zach on the assumption that none of the dozens of people who have seen him in their company over the past couple of days would dream of going to the authorities. Seeing as how they have spent their entire lives trying to evade the consequences of their actions, this is not a hard decision for them at all–sure, Frankie feels bad about it for a minute or two but he is right there with the duct tape and shovel when it comes down to it–but it winds up having dire consequences for all involved.
There are so many aspects to “Alpha Dog” that I hated that it is difficult to know where to start. To begin with, writer-director Nick Cassavetes, whose previous efforts have included the ludicrous hostage thriller/HMO denunciation “John Q” and the smarmy romance “The Notebook,” never finds a correct or consistent tone for the material. At times, he seems to be trying to make a gritty slice-of-life that will give us an unsparing look at just how decadent these kids are but he goes so far over-the-top in his attempts to do so that the film threatens to turn into a full-length verison of one of those educational films that they used to show in junior high in an effort to get kids to Straighten Up and Fly Right. Other times, Cassavetes apparently wants to satirize the excesses of the times but his attempts to this end–such as a recreation of a gangsta-rap video that seems to have been made by someone whose only exposure to such things was an old article in “The National Review”–are so ham-fisted that they never inspire as many laughs as the theoretically serious material. Perhaps recognizing his lack of tone, Cassavetes tries to distract us with a number of film school tricks–some scenes are shot in a faux-documentary style while others are done in split-screen for no discernible reason–but all they do is remind us of the essential shallowness of the material.
This cluelessness also extends to his handling of the extensive cast of characters as well. “Alpha Dog” has a high-profile cast consisting of hot young things (Timberlake, Hirsch, Yelchin, Foster, Hatosy, Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried), big-name stars in small supporting turns (besides Stone, a bizarrely bewigged Bruce Willis turns up as Johnny’s shady father and Harry Dean Stanton has a bit as Willis’s father) and what-the-hell? cameos from the likes of Janet Jones and Alan Thicke. I understand why all these people would want to sign on to a project like this–much like the guys in college acting courses who inevitably chose to do scenes from David Mamet plays only so that they can swear like truckers and smoke during class, roles like this allow them to show off their bad-ass skills and hopefully inspire a fawning piece on “Access Hollywood” in which they talk about the “challenges” of playing such a part. Unfortunately, since Cassavetes hasn’t given them any real characters to play, they all come off as exactly what they are–a bunch of blandly unconvincing actors trying and failing to act tough in a series of semi-improvised scenes in which they smoke, screw and swear to no avail. The handling of the actors is so clumsy that when it becomes evident that a couple of the performers, namely Ben Foster and Sharon Stone, have actually put some work into creating fully developed characters, Cassavetes sabotages their work by sticking each them with a scene so embarrassing and badly conceived that it undercuts the rest of their efforts. The only person in the cast who doesn’t come off looking like a poseur is the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton and even he winds up working against the film because he has such an aura of authenticity about him that he shows his younger co-stars for the hollow frauds that they are without even lifting a finger.
However, what is most offensive about “Alpha Dog” are the contortions that Cassavetes goes through in order to let the young adult audience off the hook by firmly assigning all the blame for their behavior squarely on the shoulders of inattentive parents. Right from the start, he tries to push this thesis through by having the Bruce Willis character tell an interviewer that the entire story is about the perils of shoddy parenting and continues by showing us a parade of parents who are either too restrictive, too permissive or so self-involved that they don’t notice what is going on around them. (In the bummest scene in a film billed with bum scenes, the one conscience-stricken girl on display tries to tell her mother what is going on, only to be angrily rebuffed because she is too busy trying to have sex to have time to listen.) Obviously, shoddy parenting is a key factor in why monsters such as the ones depicted here turn out the way that they do but the refusal of Cassavetes to condemn the younger characters in the same way seems disingenuous, as if he is afraid of potentially alienating the target audience of teens by offering the heretical suggestion that perhaps they may also bear some responsibility for their behavior as well.Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful film called “River’s Edge” that, like “Alpha Dog,” told a true-life story involving murder, drugs and alienated youth. What made that film work, however, is that it was less concerned with being perceived as edgy than it was in telling a compelling story about disaffected teens grasping their way through serious moral and ethical issues in a way that respected audiences instead talking down or kissing up to them. “Alpha Dog,” on the other hand, is nothing but a shabby piece of teensploitation that is so crude and hackneyed that it makes “Kids” and “Thirteen” look like models of subtlety and restraint by comparison.
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