Sunday, February 4, 2007

Reel To Reel: Alpha Dog

Yo, dog! This is all messed up, man.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone, Emile Hirsch
Rated: R (should be NC-17)
Red Flags: Strong Language (more than 300 f-bombs!), Graphic Sexuality And Nudity, Violence

"You wanna' know what this is all about?" says the father of a drug-dealing son wanted for kidnapping and murder conspiracy, "you can say this is about drugs or guns or bad decisions, whatever you like. But this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children."

"Taking care" is a highly flexible term, as we see in Alpha Dog, a film reminiscent of 1995's Kids, with its wallowing in a cesspool of teen drugs, sex, and violence. That film left out the parents. Alpha Dog brings them in as contributors to delinquency, unindicted co-conspirators. We quickly learn the father (Willis) is suspected of being his son's major dope supplier. That obviously counts as family values.

The movie is lifted from the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, who became one of the youngest people ever to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. He is currently awaiting trial in California. The names in the movie are changed for legal reasons, but the sequence of events comes straight from the case files.

Emilie Hirch plays Hollywood in the role of Johnny Truelove, a rising drug kingpin with enough cash and juice for his own pad, constantly surrounded by homeboys, hangers-on, and loose girls in a continuous "gangsta" orgy interrupted only by drug deals which we don't see. Truelove even has his own servant whom his crew belittle for a few yuks between beers and bong hits.

One of Johnny's clients is Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a guy who looks like he's doing more drugs than he's selling. His eyes are constantly dilated (Foster took glaucoma drops during filming to get that effect) and he is always a few words away from an explosive outburst. Jake owes Johnny $1200 for a drug debt. When he shows up one night and can't pay it off, the war is on. After a couple of escalating strikes, Johnny goes to confront Jake but ends up kidnapping his 15-year-old half brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) instead.

Zack and Jake come from an affluent family. Jake is a bad seed his father would rather not deal with. Zack has been raised as a good little boy by a mother (Stone) who likely got parenting advice from Desperate Housewives' Bree Van De Kamp as we hear about "homework parties" -- with hats. The kid brother is tired of the structure and Norman Rockwell existence and secretly craves Jake's lifestyle, which he's already slipping into by smoking weed.

One day, Zack goes out for a walk after a fight with his parents. That's when Johnny and his gang grab him, thinking they can use him as a bargaining chip. For the next few days, Zack gets a sweet taste of the decadence of suburban homies -- hanging out, doing dope, taking care of weed and playing video games. It's Stockholm Syndrome in the Inland Empire. Johnny soon finds he's in over his head, as the kidnapping fails to make Jake settle up and leaves him with one deadly option.

Alpha Dog is cringingly profane, but constantly intriguing. The film makes you wonder how kids from good families crash and burn, and you soon see the reason. Every parent in the film, with the exception of Stone's character, is either stoned, clueless, indifferent, or lawless. Tough love is not in their vocabulary. They would rather be friends to their children than protectors, or they simply don't know how to be protectors. Their children have some sense of morality, but it surfaces too late -- too many drugs, too much drinking, too much referring to women as female dogs. Watching Zack drift down into it is one of the film's strong points.

Johnny becomes the victim of his own lawlessness, turning from cool kingpin to scared fugitive. Yet from the outset, his charisma seems weak for a major player. He sounds a little too white and nerdy, somebody with only a little more street cred than Kevin Federline. Johnny's pal Frankie, played by an astonishingly solid Justin Timberlake, could crush him out like a Marlboro.

Parts of the film are shot pseudo-documentary style, including an emotional scene with Zack's mother who talks about the aftermath of her son's death in Palm Springs. Normally this might be a distraction, but the sparingly short clips all work. The film also keeps a running count of witnesses to Zack's kidnapping and captivity, as if it's a prosecution's exhibit -- which in some way, it is. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes had extensive access to investigative files. This caused legal bumps in the case and almost kept the film off the screen.

The movie reaffirms timeless warnings about what children become if parents aren't strong role models -- yada, yada, yada. We've seen it before. Alpha Dog's main problem is that it plays too much like a rap video and not enough like a morality play -- which it clearly wants to be.

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