It’s a cliché, but I have to say it: Justin Timberlake has found the role he was born to play. As one of Alpha Dog’s crew of spoiled, suburban white boys playing at being gangstas, he’s not just adequate, he’s … slightly better than adequate. Oh, all right, in a couple of scenes near the end, he’s actually downright moving. The oddly high-pitched speaking voice; the obvious, graceless self-consciousness; all those telltale signs of the poser — they actually work to his benefit when he’s playing a poser. Alongside Emile Hirsch — a genuinely good actor when he stays within his boy-next-door range, but as insufficiently badass here as he was as a gangsta in the later scenes of Lords of Dogtown — Timberlake is simply a lightweight among lightweights. It’s really a genius bit of casting; every non-actor doggedly pursuing Hollywood stardom should be so fortunate in having a director turn his liabilities into assets.
Based on the story of Jesse James Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley drug dealer who, in 2000, kidnapped Nicholas Markowitz in hopes of forcing his brother Ben to pay a $1,200 debt, Alpha Dog shows what happens when the posers take the role too seriously. Hirsch’s Johnny Truelove is the JJH character, the Peter Pan to this group of constantly stoned, heavily armed Lost Boys, a second-generation dealer with an entourage of sycophants and wannabes that includes Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake), Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), Pick Giamo (Vincent Kartheiser), Bobby “911” Kaye (Alex Solowitz), and Tiko “TKO” Martinez (Fernando Vargas). The boys deal their drugs and play with their guns, but at first, it’s mostly harmless make-believe. They don’t actually want to hurt anyone; they just don’t want the party to end.
Most of us have probably known guys like these; in high school I had a formerly straight-arrow friend who decided he was starting up a chapter of the Crips in our small Arkansas town. He started smoking a lot of pot, wearing all blue, and calling girls “bitches”; he threw out his Metallica and Ministry CDs and started listening to Public Enemy and Tupac. He scared the hell out of his wealthy, Republican, churchgoing parents, but I and the rest of his friends initially thought it was a harmless phase, like when the chubby girl in your French class comes back from summer vacation and she’s gone all Goth. Then some jackass tried to hook up with the bleached-blonde skank who’d replaced the Laura Ashley-wearing good girl my friend had been dating, and he pulled our town’s first drive-by shooting.
In Alpha Dog, as with my friend, things get dangerous when a pissing contest spins out of control, though the issue here is money rather than a hootchie. When Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a musclebound Jewish meth-head with some serious internalized anti-Semitism (he has Hebrew script tattooed around his neck, a giant swastika on his chest), reneges on a drug deal he’d promised to make for Johnny, their disagreement turns into a brawl and then into a war, with a tweaked-out, very stupid Jake constantly escalating the conflict. Not content to merely piss off a powerful drug dealer and bust up a little plate glass, Jake returns to Johnny’s house with a couple of friends late one night to steal a few valuables and take a shit on the living room rug. Foster is the one truly, disturbingly believable young actor in the cast, all sweaty adrenaline and menacing self-loathing. As he showed as an amoral sociopath in Hostage, he’s capable of a feral intensity that’s as frightening as it is compelling, and with his buzzed hair, his angular death’s-head face, and his physique recently redesigned as a mass of dangerously coiled bulges, he could be a suburban Grim Reaper.
Like any good drug dealer, Johnny is first and foremost a businessman, and he initially plays it cool and rejects the idea of open retaliation against Jake. But when he and his friends see Jake’s 15-year-old half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) walking alone beside the highway, their eyes flash with notions of revenge and ransom, and they grab the kid and high-tail it to Palm Springs. But what, exactly, do you do with a kidnapped 15-year-old in Palm Springs? Johnny and his friends aren’t exactly nice guys, but neither are they heartless Mafiosi who can just lock the kid in a car trunk and forget about him. And Zack is such a nice kid, compliant and friendly to his kidnappers; it’s as if he were born with Stockholm Syndrome. So, what the hell, why not get high with the kid, play a few videogames, and take him to a couple of parties? So, for a while, that’s just what they do, and Zack, whose overprotective mom Olivia (Sharon Stone) won’t let him have any fun, eats it up. Free drugs; cool, older guys to hang out with; hot chicks intrigued by his gentle manner and obvious virginity — it’s a 15-year-old’s dream. And the older kids come to see Zack as a sort of a mascot, even a little brother. But they can’t keep the kid in this high-school hedonists’ Neverland forever, and as Johnny becomes increasingly aware of the legal trouble he’s risking, the options narrow to a grim few.
Films often blend genres, but Alpha Dog is really like nothing I’ve seen before, by turns a gritty docudrama of drugs and thugs, a giddily excessive melodrama, and a teen sex comedy. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes has a good ear for the way these kids talk and a fair understanding of their psychology — he captures their dangerous shortsightedness and casual misogyny, racism, and homophobia in a way that feels just right — but he doesn’t have the control he should over their performances or the film’s tone. Many moments are intended as jokes at the kids’ expense, as their attempts to play badass inadvertently reveal the whiny little pricks beneath the façades, but other scenes that should play as serious are infused with inexplicable soap-opera histrionics. In spite of the inconsistencies, though, we come to care about the characters, particularly Zack, who is so uncomplicatedly sweet and guileless that he’s a little hard to believe (Yelchin’s unaffected performance just barely pulls it off), and Frankie, who takes an immediate liking to Zack and several times offers the kid a way out that he’s too trusting to realize he should take. And, tonally consistent or not, none of the scenes are boring — the film is often fascinatingly overwrought, as though seen through the eyes of a speed freak.
To the central question of why all these privileged kids decide to squander their opportunities and embrace the fantasy of the thug life, Cassavetes lays the blame partly on the media — in an early scene, the boys watch a gangsta-rap video that’s later referenced when rationalizing a crime, and of course Johnny has a large Scarface poster on his wall — but his judgment falls chiefly on their permissive parents, themselves all overgrown adolescents, too self-absorbed and irresponsible to demand any responsibilities or set any boundaries for their children. Johnny’s father Sonny (Bruce Willis) is himself a dealer who set Johnny up in the family business, and Frankie’s botanist dad (Chris Kinkade) grows pot for his personal use, while most of the other parents we see are themselves too busy getting drunk, high, or laid to worry about their kids. How are they going to point the way out of Neverland if they haven’t bothered to make the trip themselves?
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Alpha Dog / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | January 13, 2007 | Comments ()