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Alpha Dog

Suburban Crime Drama Scores

Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, John Q), Alpha Dog is loosely based on Jesse James Hollywood, a mid-level Southern California drug dealer who, before he turned twenty, became a fugitive and earned a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list (he was apprehended in South America two years ago and is currently awaiting trial on multiple charges). The film, however, is not a romanticized, sentimentalized exploration of a minor criminal who meets a violent, premature end. Instead, it is a wrenching, if overlong, cultural critique of suburbia and wannabe gangstas. Alpha Dog isn’t exactly original, but is better than you’d think for a film released during the month of January, a notorious dumping ground for unwanted films.

Set in Southern California, Alpha Dog follows Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a drug dealer who has everything he could want: money, drugs, and women (circa 1999). Along with his best friend and fellow dealer, Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), Tiko "TKO" Martinez (Fernando Vargas) his muscle, Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), one of his underlings and various hangers-on, Johnny parties hard. When he’s not partying, he’s brokering drug deals, often with the help of his father, Sonny (Bruce Willis). Johnny talks tough, but runs into a roadblock in Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a hot-tempered, violence-prone low-level dealer and drug user who openly disrespects Johnny.

When Jake comes up short on a drug deal, he and Johnny end up in a fistfight. Spotting Jakes’ clean-cut younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) one morning, Johnny, Frankie, and Tiko nab him from the side of the road. Johnny considers Zack his “marker” against Jake’s debt and leaves him under Frankie’s care. Zack is more than happy to escape temporarily from his overprotective parents, Olivia (Sharon Stone) and Butch (David Thornton). As Frankie takes Zack partying and hangs with him, they seemingly become fast friends. But there’s no way around the fact that the police have been called in, Jake is on the lookout for Johnny and his missing brother, and Sonny's none too happy with Johnny's impulsive decision to nab Zack.

Story wise, Alpha Dog fits into the teen/suburban drama sub-genre exemplified by Bully, River's Edge and Over the Edge that mixes emotionally stunted teenagers with cynicism, nihilism, and tragedy. Some lead inevitably, inescapably toward the tragic death of one of the characters and the unforeseen (to the characters, if not moviegoers, who know better) consequences. Each, in their way, is intended as social critiques of the deadening effects of suburbia, due mostly to self-centered, negligent parents, and bleak futures with limited options, none of them good.

Alpha Dog doesn’t stray far (actually it doesn’t stray at all) from these conventions. That might sound like a negative, but it isn't. Instead, familiarity with the sub-genre or knowing the movie's connection to the real world, suggests that the characters are playing out their predestined roles in a tragedy.

Social commentary aside, Alpha Dog goes wrong in one or two minor ways. The wraparound, direct-to-camera interviews with a defensive, profane Sonny and a grieving Olivia add nothing to the film, tediously padding out an already overlong running time. Cassavetes most likely added those scenes to give Willis and Stone more screen time than the brief scenes they already have. Inexplicably, Stone appears in layers of makeup in the interview scenes meant to make her look unattractive. Switching back to Johnny Truelove and his escapades with his girlfriend Angela also add nothing. Cassavetes also should have ended Alpha Dog with a montage of scenes detailing the fates of the various characters (or something similar) rather than letting it run another twenty minutes.

But the question everyone (well, almost everyone) wants answered is whether former boy band front man Justin Timberlake can do more than sing and dance. As surprising as it may sound, Timberlake can (act, that is). Although Timberlake is technically the second lead to Emile Hirsch's Truelove character, he ends up sharing the bulk of the screen time with Anton Yelchin (equally convincing as the inexperienced, worship-ready Zack). Timberlake’s conscience-stricken character gives Timberlake the opportunity to show a wide range of emotions, all of which he pulls off convincingly. Likewise with a note-perfect supporting cast, it's proof positive that Cassavetes can bring out convincing, credible performances. It’s a talent Cassavetes shares with his late father John, a writer/director/actor who specialized in character-driven dramas.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars