It’s 10 p.m. Do you know if your kids are involved in kidnapping or murder? Do you care?
Alpha Dog wants to be a wake-up call to parents, filled with over-privileged, under-attended and drugged-out twentysomethings in California who passively descend into major crimes. Dramatically, the movie has as much focus as those characters playing “Halo” at 4:20 p.m.
Realistically brash behavior is undercut by writer-director Nick Cassavetes’ cartoonish “hardcore” touches — like garish, faux gangster-rap videos and one parent growing marijuana in a wide-open backyard right next to tomatoes.
The film also never really decides whether it wants to be a parent-responsibility drama, a poser gangbanger movie or a disquieting true-crime reenactment. Then again, when editing, Cassavetes likely had more on his mind than filmmaking.
Alpha Dog originally was scheduled for 2005, and while most delayed movies are damaged goods, few are bumped around the release schedule because they potentially could damage a trial.
The film is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, who, at age 20, spearheaded the 2000 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, half-brother to a young man in drug-deal debt to Hollywood. Four accomplices were convicted, while Hollywood became the youngest person ever to make the FBI’s most-wanted fugitive list by disappearing on the lam.
Cassavetes commenced research and production on Alpha Dog while Hollywood still was at large, changing that character’s name to Johnny Truelove (played by Emile Hirsch). Strangely, Ronald J. Zonen, a Santa Barbara prosecutor who put away Hollywood’s underlings, opened his case files to Cassavetes — perhaps why the film has so many unnecessary time-and-date details and an annoying fake-documentary framing device.
Zonen was dismissed from presiding in any eventual Hollywood case, and, in March 2005, Hollywood was found in Brazil and extradited to California, where he currently awaits trial. A new ending wouldn’t be Alpha Dog’s only problem. Hollywood’s attorney asked Cassavetes to hand over information Zonen shared with him and long blocked Alpha Dog’s release for fear of swaying potential jurors. A federal-court judge decided only in December to let the film be released.
Stranger still, Cassavetes reportedly enlisted, in a consulting role, Jack Hollywood — Jesse James’ father, who, according to court records, was a longtime drug dealer who supplied and backed his son. (Bruce Willis plays this role, with the name changed to Sonny Truelove, in the film.)
That plot point kicks off a film as different from the sun-kissed romance of Cassavetes’ The Notebook as that film was from his health-care hostage drama, John Q. His genre jumping as a filmmaker is commendably bold, even in a film as unevenly made and acted as Alpha Dog. (Most of the young people in Johnny’s orbit are recognizable faces in bland roles, and the less said of Ben Foster’s overdone performance as the karate-kicking, speed-tweaking half brother, the better.)
Cassavetes never glamorizes Johnny Truelove’s life, as certain hollowness rings out in his high-and-drunk gatherings. And Johnny’s just a poseur figurehead, someone to whom “friends” latch on because of what his father can provide and prevent for them. Hirsch effectively conveys that Johnny’s badness really is bravado, which he knows but won’t cop to.
For Johnny, kidnapping young Zach (Anton Yelchin) starts as a lark and ends as a way to prove himself in his culture of crime. A casual drug user who feels stifled by his mother (Sharon Stone), Zach goes along with things because of the attention it brings. Although awkwardly saddled with a silly scene of sexual fantasy made real, Yelchin impresses as a talking-point curiosity for teenage girls who makes what he believes to be social inroads with older guys he thinks are his “boys.”
Zach’s best bud, so he mistakenly thinks, is Frankie, convincingly painted by Timberlake as a young man confused by instincts of sympathy and self-preservation. Cassavetes too often trains the camera on Timberlake during homophobic, profane rants to induce shock at the mouth on that pop star. So Timberlake trumps him by not adding artifice to his work; that he’ll throw a woman off the toilet to use the bathroom for drinking and smoking is enough. Watching Frankie contemplate, then cast aside, the right choices feels real and heartbreaking, especially in the harrowing climax.
It’s too bad Cassavetes doesn’t trust his instincts to end the film there, adding numerous epilogues — among them an embarrassingly bad scene to one actor in the worst fat-suit work since Martin Lawrence. His stylishly shot film always is engaging, especially once it’s handed over to Timberlake in the second hour, and its vibe is so skeezy you practically can smell stale weed smoke. But where it thinks it’s delivering gut punches, it’s too often feigning with caricatures.