Toward the end of the year, and on into the month of January, fans of cinema everywhere are bombarded with the last ditch efforts of studios to capture the limelight and rake in some coveted award season hardware. With that onslaught come some excellent films, as seen this year with the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men.
In some cases, films of this nature are held until the end of the year in order to maintain that fresh Oscar scent. On the flip side, every year gets its share of Oscar bait-and-switch – movies that show promise but don’t quite make the cut. This year gives us Alpha Dog, a film that is doomed to be more of a lukewarm January filler than a serious late season contender.
Now, marketers over at Universal Pictures would have you believe that Alpha Dog is to be the breakout vehicle for pop star-turned Saturday Night Live host-turned actor Justin Timberlake. But Timberlake ends up playing second fiddle to other young talents, such as Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) and Ben Foster (Six Feet Under, X-Men: The Last Stand). Hirsch plays Johnny Truelove, a neighborhood drug runner in suburban California who takes up a beef with Jake (Foster) over a deal gone sour. In order to best live up to the legacy of Scarface (the poster adorns his bedroom wall), this Halfling gangster decides to kidnap Jake’s brother (Anton Yelchin) and hold him as collateral until the debt is paid. As you can imagine, what began as a fun game with some pot dealing breaks into what can only be described as terribly formulaic studio drama that ends as you would expect – just not soon enough.
Adding to the otherwise predictable plot, penned by Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook), is the annoyance of Mr. Timberlake, who spends much of the first two thirds of the film gallivanting around like the court jester in Johnny Truelove’s kingdom of wannabe gangsterism. In the final moments of the film, his performance shores up considerably, allowing him to show off what those pesky marketers want you to see – he can actually act.
Unfortunately it is too late to save his performance as a whole, as most of us have already lost interest. Similar sentiments can be expressed about the performance laid down by Emile Hirsch, who has fared well in more simple roles in the past. His portrayal of a conflicted, power hungry youth plays out more like the naïve boy from The Girl Next Door, just with more hours logged playing Grand Theft Auto.
There are some standouts though, including Ben Foster’s eccentric yet well articulated delivery of Jake, the constantly cracked-out big brother who has edge like Ed Norton had edge in American History X – just with less racism.
But despite the up and down performances from this young cast, the downfall of this film will inevitably be the fact that its creator (the aforementioned writer/director Nick Cassavetes) was trying a bit too hard to make an edgy, dark drama without scaring away the Timberlake demographic. He shies away from giving his characters depth in lieu of promoting the political agenda that our kids should watch fewer rap music videos.
Had Cassavetes shown a little more testicular fortitude with this story, and delivered a more edgy and original film like Rian Johnson did with Brick a year ago, Alpha Dog may have turned out to be a solid film, especially considering its solid cast. Sadly he did not, and it did not turn out okay. Luckily for audiences though, the film is entertaining enough to be palatable, even if it doesn’t have what it takes to hang with all of the other great flicks that are hitting theaters this time of year. If you want a great teenage crime flick, rent Brick – otherwise you will are destined to be disappointed by that ol’ Oscar bait-and-switch.