Alpha Dog

'It's about parenting.' Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis in "Alpha Dog") 'They killed my son for $1,200.' Olivia Mazursky (Sharon Stone in "Alpha Dog") LA Valley guy Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, "Lords of Dogtown") thinks he's the baddest dealer in San Gabriel, so when customer and hanger-on Jake (Ben Foster, "Hostage," "X-Men: The Last Stand") fails to come up with his cash, Johnny kidnaps the dude's little brother just to prove he's the "Alpha Dog."

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook") decided to take a look at disaffected kids in his daughter's high school circle when the true story of Jesse James Hollywood came along and nailed what he was looking for. Cassavetes's fictionalized account shows how a bunch of rich kids with little parental guidance form themselves into gangs they romanticize as hard core criminal only to trip themselves up when they play at the real thing. While Cassavetes' large ensemble spikes outward towards overemoting and collapses inward with over restraint, there is no denying he creates an astonishing amount of tension building towards his 'I-can't-believe-this-is-really-going-to-happen' climax. That and he's given Justin Timberlake a breakout role. "Alpha Dog" begins with interview of one of those absentee parents - Sonny Truelove (an effective Bruce Willis, sporting age spots and weird hair) - maintaining his and his son's innocence. Sonny claims not to know the whereabouts of Johnny, on the lam since the murder of fifteen year-old Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin, "Hearts in Atlantis," "House of D"), the younger brother of tweaker Jake. Johnny's introduced years earlier, on the first day of a fateful three, throwing around his weight by treating Elvis (Shawn Hatosy, "John Q," "The Cooler") like an indentured servant. 'You luuuuuv him,' taunts Frankie (N'Sync-er Justin Timberlake), recognizing the suckup devotion Johnny's wealth and artificial status inspires in their circle. The boys think they're living the gangsta life by the videos they watch, the posters they hang and the lingo they adopt, but when Johnny makes a move against Jake, he finds himself threatened with a real violence he was not expecting. When the situation escalates to his own home being invaded, Johnny reacts on the spur of the moment when he spies Jake's little brother walking down the road. While at first Johnny tries to act threatening, he quickly appoints Frankie as Zack's babysitter and Zack finds himself being treated to parties, older girls and something like friendship. Word of his status as 'the stolen boy' begins to spread, giving him a 'cool' quotient with all but the very few, like Susan (Dominique Swain, 1997's "Lolita"), who question the sanity of the situation. When Johnny discovers his actions could actually translate to jail time, he makes yet another terribly wrong move, leaning on the loyal Elvis to do his bidding. Production designer Dominic Watkins ("The Bourne Supremacy") and art director Alan Petherick ("Wicked") serve up the sunny, candy colored world these kids inhabit and Cassavetes provides the poolside parties, herd mentality and parentage that powers them. Hyper-violent, drug addled Jake is the product of a father (David Thornton, "John Q," "The Notebook") who provides material comforts without emotional backing and the over-protective mother (Sharon Stone, "Bobby") responsible for Zack's unworldly innocence. Sonny Truelove is clearly operating in shadowy realms and nice guy Frankie's dad (Chris Kinkade, "She's So Lovely") is one of those cool cats who cultivates a huge marijuana garden and might be found screwing two chicks, a lax morality that provides his son with a certain shade of gray. The huge ensemble cast is mostly spot on. As Johnny, Hirsch is good at displaying a shallow bravado masking inner cowardice, but his performance is too opaque for such a central role. On the flip side, Foster practically foams at the mouth as Jake, tipping his tweaker into cartoonland. Absolutely perfect is Timberlake, who invests Frankie with a seductive laid back California charm, but whose inability to take a stand is the whole film's horrifying core. The talented Yelchin with his high voice and open face is the perfect lamb, perhaps a bit too good to be true as directed here. Stone plays a lioness of a mother, but in her final scene, a postscript bookended to Willis's opener that finds her a wreckage of her former self, the power of her performance is blunted by the director's overly lengthy indulgence. In smaller roles, Swain and Amanda Seyfried ("Mean Girls," "Nine Lives") are both strong as representative females on opposite ends of the spectrum while Chris Marquette ("The Girl Next Door") as Swain's slacker buddy Keith waffles somewhere in between them. The film also stars Harry Dean Stanton as Sonny's right-hand buddy Cosmos, Olivia Wilde ("The Girl Next Door") as Johnny's arm candy, Lukas Haas ("Brick") as his old school buddy and "ER's" Alex Kingston as Susan's mom. "Alpha Dog" suffers somewhat from uneven direction, but Cassavetes has achieved a portrait of the type of youth spawned by a litigious, ethically lax society.

Robin's Review: DNS