Story Highlights• "Alpha Dog" based on Jesse James Hollywood case
• Nick Cassavetes directed film about kidnap/murder gone awry
• Film may get details right, but lacks insight, says reviewer
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Nick Cassavetes' true-crime drama "Alpha Dog," which premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, has already had its own day in court. After the cops finally caught up with the basis for one of the film's characters, Jesse James Hollywood, his defense attorney moved to block the film's release -- a motion dismissed by the court last month.
You can see why the defense could be concerned. "Alpha Dog" concerns an impromptu kidnapping and a murder, and once the action begins, it seems like every bit character is introduced with a witness number attached (more than 30 of them).
Sure, the names have been changed, but the who's-who is fairly straightforward: 20-year-old dealer Hollywood becomes Johnny Truelove (played by 20-year-old Emile Hirsch). The victim, 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, becomes Zack Mazursky (15-year-old Anton Melchin). And so on.
In the interim, Cassavetes did rewrite the ending for his movie -- but it is, he claims, 95 percent accurate.
Here's the story: When Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) fails to pay off a drug debt, Truelove opportunistically snatches Zack, Jake's younger half-brother, off the street and whisks him off to Palm Springs. The kidnapping hasn't exactly been thought through, to put it mildly, so Truelove's homeboy Frankie (Justin Timberlake) finds himself babysitting the hostage, a responsibility he discharges by simply inducting the kid into his own party lifestyle. Within hours Zack is a minor celebrity on the scene.
"Stolen boy," coos one girl. "That's hot."
Nobody thinks to dial 911, and the one girl with the modicum of ethical sophistication to suggest that kidnapping is not cool is advised to take a Valium -- a sentiment echoed by Zack himself, who doesn't want to spoil anybody's fun.
This kind of moral nullity is depressing, but no longer shocking -- or original. In the 1986 movie "River's Edge," a schoolboy kills his girlfriend and practically the whole school knows about it before the authorities are alerted. And in Larry Clark's "Bully" (2001), a bunch of aimless high school graduates conspire to murder a manipulative "friend" because they can't think of anything better to do with their lives. Both were based on real cases.
Like Clark, Cassavetes paints a picture of liberalism gone to pot: constant casual drug use, alcohol abuse, promiscuity and profanity. And that's just the parents.
"If you want to know what this is about ... the whole thing is about parenting," opines Truelove's father (Bruce Willis) in the film's first speech. Not that he's a perfect role model, having brought his son into the family drug-supply business.
Whatever you make of the diagnosis, this oration is typical of the movie's not-so-subtle approach, with its faux documentary inserts and ironies you couldn't lift with a crowbar.
There are some good performances here, but they happen in isolation. Ben Foster works up a fury as the older brother Jake, but it's like he's in a different picture entirely (in one bizarre sequence, it looks like a martial arts action flick). Timberlake -- I know you're curious -- is modestly effective as a (relatively) nice guy who goes along with murder. Best of all is young Yelchin, "riding it out," as he puts it, unassuming and then some, but obviously a good kid.
The rest is hit and miss. As Zack's bereaved mom, Sharon Stone is asked to pour her heart out while wearing a fat suit. It's not a pretty sight and kills the pathos Cassavetes is shooting for. Several split-screen sequences are an object lesson in how style can distract from content, while the boombastic rap soundtrack suggests the film's paternalist concern over gangsta culture only goes so far.
"Alpha Dog" is no travesty, but I would trade 95 percent accuracy for, say, 25 percent insight. The film mostly fails to get under the skin of its fine young criminals and you find yourself wondering, "What were they thinking?" as you walk out of the theatre. It was surely Cassavetes' job to shed some light on that question.
"Alpha Dog" is rated R and runs 117 minutes. Click here for Entertainment Weekly's take.
Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, right) has a bone to pick with Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) in "Alpha Dog."