The Reeler


January 12, 2007

Alpha Dog

Cassavetes depicts true story as "edgy" orgy of snowballing stupidity

Stupidity, like insanity, isn't interesting in and of itself. It's the dead-end of human characteristics, certainly in storytelling, unless accompanied by the guiding hand of narrative oversight, which will hopefully lead to some point beyond stupidity -- generally the land of big laughs or resonant tragedy. Teenage stupidity, while not quite an oxymoron, is sub-interesting -- if more understandable -- particularly when it is absent a foil or some context other than more stupidity.

Alpha Dog, Nick Cassavetes' version of an E! True Hollywood Story (Jesse James Hollywood's story, actually), seems to revel in the idiocy of its subjects, and watching it is like being trapped at the biggest boneheaded gathering of snowballing stupidity you can imagine. Malevolence, entitlement, the mob mentality, Milgram's shock experiments and the perils of obedience, the tyranny of suburban fiefdoms and dilettante drug dealers -- there is ample material in the story that inspired Cassavetes, plus room for nuance and emotion and an incisive cultural snapshot. For some reason, however, he stuck to the surface, and that entails an elaborate recreation of the plum dumbness of everyone involved.

Alpha Dog closed the Sundance Film Festival a year ago this month, and it has been awaiting release ever since. Dumped by New Line after the threat of a lawsuit to block its release on the grounds that it convicted Hollywood (who was arrested in 2005 after five years on the run in Brazil) before his trial, Universal got behind the film with all of the zeal suggested by an early January release. Cassavetes' version stays very close to certain facts, pinning down days and times, which the director gleaned from copious case files, though all of the names have been changed. Inspired, then, by a true story, Alpha Dog tells the story of the murder of Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), a 15-year-old San Fernando Valley teen whose no-good older brother Jake (Ben Foster) has crossed the neighborhood's littlest Hitler, a snub-nosed drug dealer named Johnny Truelove, played by Emile Hirsch. Johnny takes revenge by kidnapping Jake's little brother and holding him for ransom, and Zack, bored with both his parents (Sharon Stone and David Thornton) and being the only smart person in the movie (casting Yelchin, who radiates the intelligence and sensitivity that made him such a standout on Huff, comes close to being the film's saving grace), actually doesn’t mind that much as Truelove and his crew, resplendent in their training sweats, are supposed to suggest the siren call of baaaaadass white-boy anomie.

The character names are gangster (Hirsch even looks a little like a pocket Edward G. Robinson), but the moves are strictly gangsta (you know they’re “street” because they call each other “bitches” -- when they’re guys!). Scarface may be the gangsta rapper’s movie of choice (and you know these dudes knew that), but Alpha Dog has no layers of meditation, genre-centric or otherwise; rather, it feels like how these kids would portray themselves if they could, i.e. with a complete lack of irony (Foster's ridiculously histrionic performance notwithstanding) or insight, pandering to the mirror-kissing ethos of youthful posturing it should be reflecting.

Cassavetes tentpoles the flashbacks with a mishmash of documentary devices that remind us intermittently that this story will not end well, and you'll spend much of the film squirming, waiting for it to do just that. Tattooed up like a Bombay bride, Justin Timberlake becomes one of the "stolen boy"'s keepers, and as Frankie Ballenbacher he's your basic tank-topped bubblehead whose pottymouth is almost as self-conscious as his porkpie hat. Bruce Willis plays Truelove senior, and sidekick Harry Dean Stanton reprises his Inland Empire role as some kind of vaguely defined hanger on. A smattering of shrieky Alpha Bitches represent the female world of the film (two of whom snatch Zack's virginity for the road), and Sharon Stone does her best "distraught mother" before suffering the indignity of a fat suit for the coda.

Perhaps he'd like to spark the kind of debate his own alpha dog dad did (Misogynist! Genius!), but in closing with one of the most beautiful women in movies made grotesque, Cassavetes merely sails off on the baseline of irritation that runs throughout film. It's as though the unbearable tension and suspense of that cherry bomb scene in Boogie Nights were stretched out over the span of two hours, its convulsive power diluted into a constant stream of twitches; far less provocative than it seems to think, the result is something you’d rather swat away than argue over.

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Comments (2)

I didn't see Alpha Dog, but I did look up the real story,and when I found out all of the details, I was pissed; really pissed. Killing a kid just to avoid life. Didn't Hollywood and his idiots know they were going to be arrested anyway? I feel real bad for the mother, the father, and the older brother of Nick Markowitz. I hope they're doing okay right about now even though they lost a great kid over something small.

what's with the spam? that movie was awful.

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