To say that life imitates art doesn't begin to do it justice. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, Nick Cassavetes' true crime drama Alpha Dog was immediately overtaken by events in March, when Hollywood was finally apprehended after months on the lam, and his defense attorney moved to block the release - a motion dismissed by the court in December.
In the interim, Cassavetes (The Notebook) has taken the opportunity to rewrite the ending for his movie. It is, he claims, 95 percent accurate, though (ironically enough) the names have all been changed. The 20-year-old Hollywood becomes Johnny Truelove (played by 20-year-old Emile Hirsch). The victim, 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, becomes Zack Marzursky (15-year-old Anton Melchin). And so on.
Locked in a drugs-related feud with Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), Truelove opportunistically snatches his younger half-brother off the street and whisks him 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 chick. 'That's hot.'
Nobody thinks to call the cops and the one girl who isn't down with it is advised to take a valium, a sentiment echoed by Zack himself, who doesn't want to spoil anybody's fun.
You can see why the defense lawyers would be concerned. Once the impromptu kidnapping is in motion, it seems like every bit character is introduced with a witness number attached (more than 30 of them). Indeed, that is probably the most remarkable aspect of the case, at least as Cassavetes tells it.
This kind of moral vacuity is depressing, but no longer shocking. These stories have surfaced before. In the 1986 movie River, a schoolboy kills his girlfriend and practically the whole school knows about it before the authorities are alerted. And in Larry Clark 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 curtain-raiser is typical of the movie's earnest over-insistence, with its faux documentary inserts and air of appalled condescension. A smarter film might have aimed for black comedy, but Cassavetes just keeps stacking up the evidence hoping some of the dirt will stick.
There are some good performances here, but they happen in isolation. Ben Foster (Angel in X-Men 3) works up a fury as the older brother Jake, but it's like he's in a different picture entirely (in one bizarre sequence, a martial arts action flick). Justin 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. As the story darkens, it's impossible not to be moved by his fate.
The rest is hit and miss. As Zack's bereaved mom, Sharon Stone gives a good performance until she 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. It mostly fails to get under the skin of its fine young criminals. You find yourself wondering, 'What were they thinking?' as you exit the cinema, when it's surely Cassavetes' job to shed some light on that question.