Monday, May 7, 2007

Alpha Dog

LondonNet Film Review by Kevin Garnett

Alpha Dog is based on the true story of a Californian drug kingpin named Jesse James Hollywood. After building up a sizeable empire in the San Fernando Valley, Jesse's luck took a turn for the worse. He and his gang had the bright idea to kidnap the little brother of a deadbeat client, held him for a few days, and then killed him. Jesse went on to be the youngest member of the FBI's ten most wanted list at the tender age of 20 before Interpol caught up with him in Brazil...

Somehow the film takes that compelling story and makes it difficult to enjoy. Not impossible, as I certainly liked the film, but director Nick Cassavetes never really finds his tone. Jonny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is the name of Jesse's character, and he is alternately calculating, terrified, menacing, weak, and outright dumb. This is not the result of a natural character arc, though. His character will completely jump from one adjective to another with no justification. More bewildering, we are left wondering how on Earth he ever managed to build an empire considering how childish he tends to act.
The even more frustrating choice by Cassavetes is his decision to occasionally cut to documentary-style interviews conducted in the aftermath of the story's events. These are universally examples of the laziest of story telling, as each interview exists solely to fill in gaps of information or explain the meaning of the film. Their presence, especially towards the end, completely removes the viewer from any sort of dramatic tension.
However, enough of my take on Cassavetes. Based on the promotional material people only care about one person here: Justin Timberlake. He's made a couple of appearances in film before, but this is his real attempt at a star turn. A bit surprisingly, he is one of the best things about this film. As Frankie Ballenbacher, Timberlake is possibly the only clearly drawn character in the film. While much of that came from some choice writing, Timberlake clearly has been able to translate his success on the Mickey Mouse Club television show to the big screen.
Other notable performances include Anton Yelchin as the victim of the kidnapping, Nick Mazursky, and Ben Foster as his cracked out older brother. Foster very nearly plays Jake Mazursky as too over the top, but he reigns it in enough to be a compelling force any time he is on screen. Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis phone in performances here. Stone in particular has one scene wherein she wears one of the absolute worst fat suits of all time.
In the end, the good outweighs the bad in Alpha Dog. It is fortunate that Cassavetes did such an excellent job casting (for the most part), as with slightly weaker performances there's no way this film could've saved itself from his baffling direction. Someone stop this man before he shoots another sequence in split screen!
- Kevin Garnett

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