Reel Reviews | Alpha Dog

by Tim Gordon

Thirty years ago in Animal House, Dean Wormer once told a student that “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Never has a sentiment rang truer than in Nick Cassavetes’ latest film, Alpha Dog.

The film is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a young drug dealer who became one of the youngest men ever on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Told in a semi-documentary style, the film examines the kidnapping of a rival’s brother over a three-day time period with close to 40 witnesses to the crime.

Young Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh) is running a mid-level drug dealing operation when a relationship with a high-strung employee, Jake (Ben Foster) goes violently wrong. Unafraid and not intimidated by Johnny, Jake (a stereotypical Hollywood white supremacist character) wages war. Robbing Johnny’s house and in a final act of defiance, he defecates on his living room floor.

Unsure of his next act and afraid, Johnny and his crew (featuring Justin Timberlake and boxer Fernando Vargas) stumble upon Jake’s restless younger brother, Zack (the engaging Anton Yelchin) and decide to kidnap him and hold for ransom.

Everything is going to plan except for one thing that his captors never counted on, Zack loves hanging with his “new friends.” In fact, you get the impression from watching him and begin to understand that he is having the best weekend of his young life. What’s not to like? He gets high, is the middle of a love sandwich and he’s suddenly the center of attention with his peers.

The only problem is that his parents (more to the point, his mother) is worried sick about his whereabouts and Jake is seething, vowing vengeance when he gets his hands on Johnny.

The young and blunted will love this film and you have to give Cassavetes credit for this attempt. Featuring a less-than-desired screenplay (“men are not meant to be monopolis” or “my shirt is cool, Bob Marley is cool, but kidnapping a kid is not cool”), Alpha Dog marginally succeeds only because of the performances.

Timberlake follows his hilarious Saturday Night Live hosting duties with a likeable performance, while Sharon Stone turns in her second strong performance as the despondent mother. Bruce Willis is wasted in the role of Johnny’s father, Sonny. But the two key performances are the brothers. Yelchin’s accommodating personality is understateably building toward a sad and unfortunate conclusion. Foster’s frenetically charged Jake sizzles while he’s onscreen. His absence towards the end sucks the remaining energy from the film.

As I watched the film, I tried to picture a community with so many clueless and disrespected parents raising burnout children. The cinematic demise of the American family continues. The inmates are running the asylum and the film’s end definitely justified the means.

Grade: C