Alpha Dog

(2007) *** R
117 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Nick Cassavetes. Cast: Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Emile Hirsch, Dominique Swain.

"What's the matter with kids today?" goes the old Bye Bye Birdie song. Though the song is laced with generation-gap irony, the broad question remains evergreen. With Alpha Dog, writer-director Nick Cassavetes flirts with the question and its potential answers. The Southern California of Alpha Dog is one of hip-hop homophobia, teenage drug dealers, and the attendant pool-party bacchanals. But as these profane youngsters run amok, their parents live as exiles from their kids' world. Perhaps, then, the question has changed: "What's the matter with today's parents?"

Alpha Dog is a well-researched model of the true-crime genre, springing from the case of one Jesse James Hollywood, a young drug dealer who found himself on the FBI's ten-most-wanted list by the age of twenty. The story is a classical tragedy in a modern idiom, with immature young men making bad choices from drug dealing to kidnapping to murder. With few flourishes—except a witness counter that underlines how many could have interrupted the crime spree—Cassavetes simply lays out the incredible story and mostly lets us draw our own conclusions.

On screen Hollywood becomes Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), whose burgeoning business hits a snag when war breaks out with deadbeat debtor Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster). A chance encounter with Jake's brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) provides the "opportunity" for Hollywood's crew to fall into impromptu kidnapping, a choice that seems destined to end badly.

Truelove turns out to be one of three generations of assholes, following in the footsteps of his father (Bruce Willis) and grandfather (Harry Dean Stanton). Here and elsewhere, the child chafes against the parent. Zack's emphatic domestic rebellion ironically makes him a solicitous hostage, one who feels he's on "vacation" and happily makes new friends (meanwhile, a girl who hears he's a captive replies, "That's fuckin' hot").

Yelchin (The House of D) succeeds in being the hormone-soaked soul of the picture, and he's ably bolstered by a cracking ensemble of young actors showing new dimensions: Justin Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy (The Cooler), Chris Marquette (The Girl Next Door), Vincent Kartheiser (Another Day in Paradise). As a Jewish skinhead, Ben Foster again proves scary-edgy, and Hirsch makes believable the paradox of Hollywood's criminal survival instincts and the desperate idiocy of someone who allows himself to get in way over his head. As Mama Mazursky, Sharon Stone has a climactic scene scene that's at once gripping and destined for the Camp Hall of Fame.

A certain brand of moral detachment makes possible the tragedy and the tale's cautionary impact. In this way and others, Alpha Dog is a close cinematic relative of Larry Clark's Bully. The former film is grittier while the latter is literally more Hollywood, but both acknowledge the prurient, palpable allure of criminal behavior while not unduly glamorizing it. Cassevetes starts the film with an affecting credit-sequence montage (improbably scored to "Over the Rainbow") to remind us that every dangerous criminal was once someone's beaming child.

[For Groucho's interview with Nick Cassavetes, click here.]

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