Friday, January 12, 2007

Are You Talkin' To Me? A Review of ALPHA DOG

There’s an interesting irony in Nick Cassavetes’s by turns engrossing and frustrating film, ALPHA DOG, about spoiled L.A. white-bread twenty-somethings turned wannabe-gangsters. Based on a true story (not pointed out in the film due to ongoing legal proceedings) about the 1999 kidnapping of an innocent 15-year-old teenager and sad aftermath over a $1200 debt his older half-brother owed, the film points out the influence of the glorification of the thug life in pop-culture iterations like De Palma’s SCARFACE, gangsta-rap music and video games. However, ALPHA DOG itself never achieves anything but a widescreen display of the glorification of the spoiled L.A. white-bread twenty-something turned wannabe gangster life. In short, its no better than what it decries.

In the movie, the cinematically-named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, looking like someone shrunk Jack Black), who deals drugs his mob-connected father Sonny (Bruce Willis, often making the “you gotta be f%#$ing crazy” Bruce Willis face) gets him, heads a posse of hangers-on and watch-dogs who smoke a ton of weed and hang out in their parents’ beautiful homes and pools with eager-to-please hotties. Who wouldn’t love that? They may all act “hard,” but it’s in a fashion an outsider might consider “cute,” especially considering the constant exposure to the California sun. When local degenerate Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, entertainingly channeling Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy from MEAN STREETS) welches on money owed from some product he was supposed to move, it spawns a “how-far-will-they-go” game of one-upmanship that spirals downward until Truelove’s crew happens upon and picks up Mazursky’s angelic little brother Zach (Anton Yelchin). Remaining cool and level-headed, Zach ingratiates himself as a little brother to right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake, who shines in his role) and to the Truelove’s gang at large. He even, um, experiences things that any 15-year-old boy would KILL for.

The sad fact, of course, is that in real life there are real living people still deeply affected by what transgressed. Cassavetes, son of indie filmmaking legend Jon and actress Gena Rowlands, strives for emotion by opening the film with innocent home movies (further channeling MEAN STREETS) of what’s intended to be the victimized family and intermittently cutting in reality-show type talking head testimonials from those involved. When these scenes are viewed in the context of the whole movie, however, one can’t help but feel it isn’t a gritty cautionary callout or moral narrative, but instead one that has tripped across the fine line into exploitive territory by marveling at the lives of the wrong-doers it sought to judge.

** out of *****