Bruce Willis as Sonny Truelove
Dominique Swain as Susan Hartunian
Fernando Vargas as Tiko ‘TKO’ Martinez
Paul Johansson as Pete Johansson
Olivia Wilde as Angela Holden
Lukas Haas as Buzz Fecske
Heather Wahlquist as Wanda Haynes
Amanda Seyfried as Julie Beckley
Vincent Kartheiser as Pick Giamo
Harry Dean Stanton as Cosmo Gadabeeti
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Nick Cassavetes’ attempt to decipher the case of Jesse James Hollywood misses its opportunity to be a smart, investigative crime drama, instead being a frivolous and shallow affair about partying teens.
When drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) gets into a feud with junkie skinhead Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) over money, Johnny and his pals kidnap Jake’s younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). Zack’s mother (Sharon Stone) gets very worried, but once Johnny and his gang realize how much trouble they’ve gotten themselves into, they plan to dispose of the teen.
Half the fun of movies based on true stories is trying to figure out which parts of the movie are true; the other half is trying to figure out why anyone thought these stories would make worthwhile movies. It’s easy to figure out the latter while watching “Alpha Dog,” the new crime drama from Nick Cassavetes, writer of “Blow,” director of “The Notebook” and son of a legend. The story is based on Jesse James Hollywood, a young drug dealer from California’s San Bernadino Valley who wound up on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list at the age of 20 after masterminding the kidnapping and murder of a rival’s younger brother.
In Cassavetes’ film, Hollywood has been renamed “Johnny Truelove,” who we meet during a typical hangout with his homeys in the valley house he’s bought with his drug money. Despite their affluent lifestyles, they’re still a bunch of grab-ass kids with a set hierarchy of underlings with Truelove as their kingpin. Johnny’s biggest problem is a violent junkie named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) who refuses to pay owed money, instead getting his skinhead buddies to trash Johnny’s house. When Johnny spots Jake’s kid brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) wandering alone, he sees an opportunity to get revenge, kidnapping the kid and holding him until Jake’s debt is paid off.
While the movie tries its best to piece together what might have happened to “Zack” on the wild night that followed from the literally dozens of witnesses–all appropriately labeled as they’re introduced– it’s hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with the case being very interested in Cassavetes’ ham-handed approach to the material. Although Zack’s kidnapping isn’t as ridiculously botched as the one in “Fargo,” it seems more like a harmless prank, as he’s paraded around by his captors, brought to various parties, being given the best night of his young life. Because of the way things go down, you wouldn’t think this was based on a true crime story, and it also plays down Johnny’s role in the kidnapping–he’s celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday while Zack is being paraded around by his captors–and it makes their ultimate decision even more senseless by that fact. Their troubles probably could have been easily solved by bringing Zack back home, since he would have just as likely explained how he was just hanging out with them. It would have solved a lot of problems, and who knows if it would have made a better movie even though that’s not how things happened?
Trying to make the movie seem more like a documentary, Cassavetes uses the tired dramatic device of having various characters giving testimonials directly to the camera, but the idea is quickly discarded after the first few minutes only to return later with Sharon Stone attacking her son’s captors while wearing a ridiculous-looking fat suit. For the most part, “Alpha Dog” is all over the place in terms of tone and characters with none of them really standing out as protagonists or bad guys. Because of this, you never really feel anything for Johnny or any of the characters. For every scene that’s even slightly amusing or even titillating, there’s just as much that may have well been retread from Larry Clark’s “Kids” or last year’s “Lords of Dogtown” (also starring Hirsch), essentially kids drinking, partying and messing around, not really taking anything very seriously. In this reality, there’s no such thing as school or responsibility.
Then again, the movie gives Cassavetes the opportunity to assemble a cast of pretty young actors and actresses, some of them who actually can act, which guarantees that the DVD of the movie will be passed around casting agent circles whenever someone needs a teen actor for a movie. Most of the dialogue consists of a lot of macho swearing and posturing or suitably vacant teen mutterings, and some of the more dramatic scenes become like a textbook in overacting, as each of the actors gets a chance to go overboard.
The best example of this is Ben Foster as the completely insane Jake Mazursky, a character who offers vast amounts of amusement as he proves that Ed Norton, Ryan Gosling and Emilio Estevez haven’t cornered the market on crazy skinheads. Completely out of control from his drug use, Jake goes from one scene to another doing outrageous things, including crashing a party and proceeding to punch out anyone who approaches him. It’s probably one of the funniest scenes in a movie that’s already pretty ridiculous, but at least Foster is constantly entertaining until he disappears halfway into the movie with little resolution to his arc.
While Emile Hirsch is a decent actor, he seems completely miscast as Truelove. Like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, Hirsch has the type of baby face that makes him look far younger than he is, which might be appropriate for the person he’s supposed to be portraying, but it’s not plausible that he’d have such control over a drug operation without having the tough edge one might expect. Pop singer Justin Timberlake is a bit more convincing as his right hand man, but it’s hard watching the movie without having N’ Sync songs running through your head. At least Shawn Hatosy is better as Elvis Schmidt, Truelove’s whipping boy, who ends up doing some of the dirty work to prove his loyalty to Truelove, while Bruce Willis has a small part as Johnny’s laid-back father who seems proud of his boy’s criminal enterprise.
During the making of this movie, Jesse James Hollywood was captured, but instead of using that information to flesh out the story, the info is tacked-on using a standard “what happened next” text epilogue. It’s a bit of a letdown after all the time spent building up the story. For all the hubbub about how this movie was delayed by Jesse James Hollywood’s legal department to avoid it tainting potential jurors once he was caught in 2005, it’s so ineffective in getting any sort of message across, that it’s doubtful anyone will care much either way.
The Bottom Line:
Those who’ve followed the case of Jesse James Hollywood on “America’s Most Wanted” or similar shows may be interested in Nick Cassavetes’ film, but the facts are presented in such a ridiculous manner that most of it is unbelievable. Those looking for some sort of true crime tale might leave the theatre feeling that this story isn’t finished yet, and that the most interesting part of it is yet to be told. It’s the worst cop-out in a film full of them.