Sunday, May 27, 2007

Alpha Dog (2006)

Written & Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin

Color, 117 minutes, Rated R

Grade: D-

The apple falls very far from the tree. Nowhere is this more evident than in the films of Nick Cassavetes. Nick's father, John, was the preeminent force in the foundation of American independent cinema. He specialized in making cheap, 16 mm films that starred family (wife Gena Rowlands in particular) and friends, and were shot on real locations, that sometimes included his own home. His films are truly legendary, and they changed cinema for the better. Nick, however, has none of his father's talent, and his films are some of the most painful cinematic experiences I have witnessed in my 24 years on Earth. From butchering his father's screenplay in She's so Lovely to making Denzel Washington look bad in John Q to heightening every cheesy, weepy, overwrought moment in The Notebook, Nick Cassavetes has done his best to ruin every great thing that his parents have accomplished, and it seemed impossible that he could get any worse. Welcome to a new low. Cassavetes' latest film, Alpha Dog is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen.

Based on the true story of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood, Alpha Dog gives us a character named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a Southern California pot pusher in his late teens who's living the good life. He owns his own home, cars, and a huge TV. He keeps a bunch of flunkies around to do his bidding, and when he's not hitting the bong, watching MTV, or working out, he's collecting dough from those that owe him. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a self hating Jew who has an obsession with Nazism, is one of Truelove's customers whose credit is no longer any good, it's time to pay the piper. The problem is that Mazursky doesn't have the money, and as a result of this, the shit hits the proverbial fan. After Mazursky and some cronies ransack Truelove's place, Truelove hits back, kidnapping Mazursky's 15 year old stepbrother, Zack (Anton Yelchin). He leaves Zack in the hands of Frank (Justin Timeberlake), the only one of Truelove's cohorts that has a conscience, and the two bond over the course of a couple days, while Zack enjoys the glamor of drugs and underage girls. Once Truelove and his crew realize the ramifications of the crime, they do what they have to make their problems go away.

As if it wasn't bad enough that these events really took place, Cassavetes makes sure that he rams everything down our throats. His direction is flat and lifeless, and it seems like the only true gift he has is in exploiting his subjects, and draining every bit of nuance and genuine emotion this story may have had. He fills his cast with a bunch of photogenic but incredibly untalented "actors." Hirsch walks around aimlessly, spouting profanity, and gives us an idea of what Tony Montana may have been like when he was still in diapers. Foster's performance is brimming with intensity, and it's obvious that he is trying to echo Edward Norton in American History X and Ryan Gosling in The Believer, but unlike those two superior performers, he doesn't know what it means to be subtle. His scenes are flat out laughable, none more so than when he takes a dump on Truelove's carpet. Timberlake's performance has been praised in some circles, but like the film itself, it's neither genuine nor believable. He tries hard, and he may have some potential, but with a script like this, he doesn't have a chance.

Cassavetes does throw in some more famous actors to make sure the film isn't seen as a total circle jerk. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis has never been that welcome of a presence, and his few minutes here confirms that belief. Great character actor Harry Dean Stanton, however, is always welcome, but Cassavetes gives him nothing to work with, and it's almost embarrassing to see a man of Stanton's talent reduced to this kind of crap. I will give Cassavetes points on one thing, he somehow manages to get Sharon Stone, who plays Zack's mother, to give the worst performance of her career. It's almost fascinating to watch a consistently horrible actress slide further down the drain, and the scene in which she wears a fat suit, grinning profusely, marks a watershed for cinematic terror. It is one of the scariest things you will ever see, the thing of nightmares.

Somewhere in this gigantic mess of a movie there lies a redeeming force, and his name is Anton Yelchin, and 18 year old actor who blows the rest of this cast of the water. His performance as Zack brings a real sense of truth to this film. He captures the innocence and naivete of youth, and he manages to convey the terror that confronts his character in the film's climax. This is a remarkable performance, one that deserves mention. His performance is remarkable, not only because it is incredibly nuanced, but because it is unfaltering in the ridiculous company that surrounds it. Keep an eye on this young man, he's got a gift.

Cassavetes reportedly had unprecedented access to the real life case files of these proceedings, but it doesn't matter, information and research are no substitutes for talent. He thinks we can learn from his film, that, like Willis says in the opening scene, "You can say it's about drugs or guns or bad decisions, whatever you like, but this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children." Thanks for reminding us, Nick. Yes, many parents aren't ideal, and sometimes children turn out to be bad, but no movie is going to fix that, especially not one as banal and stupid as Alpha Dog. Try as it might to be another in the long line of films, such as At Close Range and Elephant, that deal with the disaffected youth of America, it fails in every regard. In the end it's more like sitting through amateur night at the Apollo, a train wreck, and a high school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat all at once. It hurts.


H. Stewart said...

I'm not going to stick up for this movie, and certainly not for Nick Cassavetes, but I didn't hate it like you did. I actually found myself kind of enjoying it...I was deeply impressed by Yelchin's performance, and his scene near the end on the hiking trail with Timberlake et al. was really fantastic. Cassavetes couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, and Foster was really awful, as was Sharon Stone, but I thought Hirsch was fine. I always liked him ever since The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, though that was nothing special as a film. I also thought Timberlake was good, at least a very natural and enthusiastic performance.

I guess I feel some sort of voyeuristic fascination with youth and debauchery, never mind how stylized and ridiculous it was in this film. Anyway, Yelchin Yelchin Yelchin! He really redeemed this film, I thought. Did you ever see his episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where he plays Larry David's magician nephew? Hilarious.

Cassavetes I don't think is a good actor's director (never saw his earlier stuff) but he knows how to least some of the roles. (Obviously Foster was a huge mistake...sort of a Ryan Gosling lookalike/Ed Norton wannabe, glad you picked up on that too though I guess it was hard to miss!) The Notebook was where I first heard of Ryan Gosling and Rachel Macadams, and they're two very talented actors. (Why I even saw that movie is a question for another day though.) And Yelchin is superb, while Timberlake and Hirsch were good enough, as were Harry Dean Stanton and Lukas Haas, however briefly he showed up.

Clayton L. White said...

I had never heard of Yelchin before this, but I was really amazed at the depth in his performance. It was Foster that really surprised me, because I didn't think he was all that bad on "Six Feet Under," but he's just horrible in this.

You know, I really like Stanton, but he was useless here, and that's a real shame. As far as Haas goes, I'm tired of him. Yes, he was good in Witness, and he was okay in Brick, but enough is enough.

The worst part about Nick Cassavetes is that he can't direct actors at all, and that amazes me knowing who his parents are. I mean, if you look at John's films, they succeed primarily because of the performances, Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a slow movie, but it's filled with great acting, and it works. I guess I shouldn't judge Nick on who his parents were, but it's hard not to.