BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Now that he’s brought sexy back, snagged Scarlett Johansson and popularized the gift-wrapped penis, you have to ask, what can’t Justin Timberlake do? Sorry Haters, but you won’t find the chink in this pop phenom’s armor watching his big screen debut in Alpha Dog, a surprisingly effective freewheeling crime drama from director Nick Cassavetes that opens today.
Based on true events (bah, whatever) Alpha Dog tells the story of the pot-dealing gangster-wannabe Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his posse of hard-partying buddies. With the rap videos constantly playing on their big screen TV, these who dumb and dangerous youths have converted Johnny’s house into a Tupac video; it’s all glistening Glocks, bangin’ bitches and the burbling bong is always within reach. When the twitchy speed freak Jake Mazursky (Six Feet Under‘s Ben Foster) burns Johnny on a deal, Johnny’s gang hastily grabs Jake’s fifteen year-old brother in a kidnaping scheme that quickly goes south. Alpha Dog is a loose and rambling tale like Boogie Nights or River’s Edge, whether you buy Timberlake’s acting or not he’s just one cog in a whirlwind of funky performances that amble across the screen as this crew of drunk-up mini-thugs try to prove they’re as hard as they say.
Where’s Justin Timberlake in all this? He’s Johnny’s right-hand man, Frankie Ballenbacher, the fun-loving first lieutenant who just wants to keep the party rolling. Timberlake tried his hand at acting last year, with a film called Edison that went straight-to-video. With Edison he obviously bit off more than he could chew, playing a crusading young journalist who goes head-to-head with Kevin Spacey, but here Timberlake has found a role in which his sly charm can get some traction. I’m sure he didn’t need to study episodes of HBO’s Entourage to get a grip on Frankie’s partyboy steez — after all, he’s been rolling with an entourage since he was in boy band short pants. Anyway, he delivers everything that’s asked of him here.
The best thing about Alpha Dog is that Cassavetes knows that they are not. He’s not expecting you to think this group of twenty-somethings are hard-boiled like Robert Mitchum, the characters here may talk tough but time and time again the story takes them back home, where they are still badgered by grumpy parents who remind the guys just how grown up they aren’t. Frequently humiliated by their parents, these youth overcompensate to prove their manhood, throwing themselves into ridiculous dick-measuring conflicts that threaten to spin out of control when the going gets rough.
We first see the tough guy facade crack when Johnny’s home is invaded by Jake and his henchmen. Johnny hides alone in the dark with a gun trained on Jake, silently watching him take a dump on his carpet, then make off with his plasma TV. Johnny watches scared, unable to bring himself to pull the trigger and later he lies to the guys about even being there. However, if Johnny doesn’t have the balls to live up to his bluster that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to browbeat his gang into showing how tough they are, continually testing them to see if they have enough ass in their pants.
Yes, Cassavetes is the son of John Cassavetes the director of method-driven madness like Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and if he shares anything with his father it is that he is particularly interested in actors, allowing a number of promising young actors to take center stage for a few moments of quirky scene-stealing.
Top of the pile is Ben Foster’s Mazursky, the most unnerving little psycho to be seen on screen since David Patrick Kelly called The Warriors out to play. You might remember him as Claire’s art school nerd boyfriend Russell in Six Feet Under but the way he nailed that weak-willed doofus made it easy to miss how exacting a performance he was giving. While Alpha Dog is filled with guys imitating Dr. Dre’s stoned menace Mazursky is a real deal speed addict – he’s so full of facial tics and manic energy that everyone around him seems to want to cross their arms to protect themselves. Cassavetes must have known that Foster was on giving a knock-out performance, he even gives him a hysterical freak-out scene with his probation officer and a kick-boxing throwdown just so you don’t miss him.
Besides Foster, Timberlake, Emile Hirsch’s somewhat underwhelming lead and Anton Yelchin as the agreeable kidnapee, Cassavetes has Bruce Willis, Harry Dean Stanton and Sharon Stone angling to get in little facetime as well so you’ll have to forgive him when the weaving of all these plot threads gets a little sloppy (Stone has a particularly superfluous closing moment, blubbering underneath fat suit make-up).
Still, it wasn’t until the climax, which sets their destinies beneath the ominous turning propellers of a wind farm, that I realized that despite its skater attitude and Vanilla Ice hip-hop milieu, Cassavetes has created a film in the classic mode of the Southern California gangster film without resorting to fake-Bogart mannerisms like last year’s critically lauded Brick. Not everything works ( it leaves the racial subtext of spoiled rich kids “talking black” unexamined and it never shows a woman question her “bitches and ho’s ” role and why-oh-why does it have to be a fake documentary) but for the majority of its screentime Alpha Dog delivers the sort of thoughtful thrill-ride a good crime film should. If I was fifteen years old I might think it was the greatest film ever made.