guppy's film reviews

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Alpha Dog

Also reviewed this week: Smokin' Aces

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Notable Actors: Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone
Score: B+
Summary: Moderately effective sorta-kinda true story with a couple of bumps.

Alpha Dog is an odd breed of film. It's based on a true story -- that of Jesse James Hollywood -- but changes even elements as basic as the players' names. I had to refer to Wikipedia to get a feel for what was true and what was altered. However, it seems that between the time I read the Wikipedia article and the time of writing, that information was edited out for reasons unknown. There is a Wikipedia on Hollywood, but I advise against reading it (and have not linked it) because it would spoil the plot of the movie.

The basic premise of the film is that strung-out deadbeat Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) owes money to local drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Hirsch, a stand-in for Hollywood). Mazursky and Truelove get in a fight that leaves neither happy, and when Mazursky steps up the retaliation, Truelove vows revenge. While attempting to take that revenge, they stumble upon Mazursky's 15-year old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), and on the spur of the moment abduct him. The remainder of the film is spent with the question of Zack's fate hanging in the balance as the responsibility of looking after him is shifted from person to person. A sizeable portion of that time is spent with Zack in the care of Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake), considering the awkward position Ballenbacher is in.

Against all odds, Timberlake presents the strongest performance. He's a sympathetic character, and it's hard not to feel bad for him as the situation degenerates around him. For a guy with basically nothing noteworthy on his acting resume, Timberlake handles the part very well, doing a superb job of conveying Frankie's emotions and thought processes.

Hirsch gave me the most trouble, and it's not because he did a bad job, exactly. I think it's just a question of miscasting. Hirsch is too damn likeable for the part. That works to his advantage, in part -- Johnny Truelove is a charismatic guy. But he's also a complete bastard, and Hirsch doesn't convey that well.

The movie is well-paced for the most part, but I do question a few of the director's choices. Some of the scenes seem completely unnecessary, although one of them does give rise to one of the funniest moments in the movie, if your sense of humor -- like mine -- has a mean streak.

I had no idea what I was walking into when I went to see Alpha Dog. I figured out that it was a true story pretty quickly, but the film's story stands on its own without that to prop it up. It's a solid and moving film that I think is worth seeing, despite its flaws.


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