"Gangsta," not "gangster"
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"I'm a junkie. I like drugs, I like the whole lifestyle, but it just didn't pay off." Director Gus Van Sant
The drug dealing world is as mysterious to me as the black market in old Algiers: How do these people survive the onslaughts of police and rival gangs? Why do attractive young women hang around the dealers? Why are parents so ineffectual when their children get drawn to this hell? And on and on. Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog certainly conjures up that world as he sees it and those questions. Whether or not it is accurate is for someone of that world to determine.
As art it fails because the dialogue is mostly the "f" word and has little introspective philosophizing if you accept that such an extreme life demands discussion and evaluation. Character motivation is absent as well. Parties and violence dominate the film, whose plot linchpin is notorious dealer Johnny Truelove's (Emile Hirsch) kidnapping the brother of an associate who owes Johnny money. The only endearing part of this over-told tale is that the perpetrators don't initially have a clue this crime could get them life sentences. Their naivete underscores the irony that such young people are stupidly giving up their youth for weed and other ephemeral pleasures. But it's an imitation gangster world anyway with all the ignorance you'd expect.
Alpha Dog is a mess of a plot as it mixes faux-documentary interviews with witnesses to the crime and flashbacks that distract rather than propel. Those parents are too clueless to be believed as is Sharon Stone made up as a fat, middle-aged mother, who appears earlier as a slender beauty that she really is. Ultimately the film scores by depressing the hell out of the audience and delivering a modicum of justice to the gangsta world. (The Valley ranch homes and run-down real estate such as strip malls are a success at creating depression, thanks to the production design and cinematography.)
Give credit to the daring director, whose Notebook is decidedly the opposite of this bleak film. Alpha Dog, a fictionalized account of a true story, is rumored to have been produced to encourage the conviction of Jesse James Hollywood (the film's Johnny), who is awaiting trial. Justin Timberlake as his buddy Frankie acts well enough as a gangsta with a heart. But he'd be better as a singer, and I'd have been better to have seen The Departed again. Now that's a real gangster film!
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com