"Alpha Dog" is a clumsy and uneven crime drama that survives despite its flaws. The film tells the real-life story of Jesse James Hollywood, who became the youngest man ever to make the FBI's Most Wanted list. In the movie, he is represented by the character of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a self-centered slacker who sells weed to rich kids in Palm Springs and smokes a lot of it while playing video games with his buddies.
The group consists of Frankie (Justin Timberlake), a misogynistic, street-talking white boy with money; Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), an eager-to-please wannabe who is always ridiculed; Angela (Olivia Wilde), Truelove's aggressive girlfriend; and several others of the same likeness. What they all have in common is that they are spoiled, lazy, bored, naive and from wealthy families. They are the kind of people who get everything handed to them on a silver platter. Even though they would never give up any of their luxuries, they still fantasize about big-time street thugs.
"Alpha Dog" really takes off when Truelove's crystal meth-addicted business partner — Jake (Ben Foster) — fails to come up with the $900 he owes him and is subsequently threatened. Jake then retaliates by severely trashing Truelove's home and runs off with no intention of paying anything back.
Foster plays Jake with so much intensity that he overtakes just about every scene that requires his presence. The movie follows him as he begs for money from his parents, parties with his girlfriend and messes up a job opportunity. Jake is violent, desperate and lost; the only person who seems to care for him is his younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), and Jake loves him for it. So when Truelove and his crew randomly see Zack walking outside one day, they decide to snatch him and hold him as collateral until Jake comes up with the money he owes.
Truelove soon finds himself in a situation where he has no idea what to do next. They kidnapped the kid, so now what? He hands Zack over to his trusted friend Frankie, who establishes an interesting bond with the abducted teen. Frankie leads Zack through a strange experience over the next couple of days, complete with plenty of smoking, drinking and women.
Zack actually ends up having the most fun he has ever had in his life. He discovers who he is, gains confidence and does not dream of returning home earlier than he needs to. Yelchin and Timberlake both deliver good performances, and the movie belongs to them. They make it believable that these two guys would behave this way in a kidnapping situation even when it seems like a far stretch.
Eventually, the party in "Alpha Dog" ends, and the kidnapping becomes more serious. The potential consequences of their actions finally sink in, and the wannabe gang fears jail time.
The movie, directed and written by Nick Cassavetes, only develops a consistent flow halfway through and loses it again near the end. Cassavetes focuses heavily on certain characters and then drops them before moving on to others for a while. For instance, Jake is seen searching for his little brother shortly after the kidnapping, and then he disappears from the story.
The film also has some of the weirdest celebrity cameos since "Fast Food Nation," including Bruce Willis, Harry Dean Stanton, Alan Thicke and Sharon Stone. Stone wears a fake-looking fat suit in one of the most embarrassingly out-of-place scenes ever in a movie.
"Alpha Dog" is a jumbled mess at some points but is never boring thanks to most of the performances and the fact that Cassavetes packs the movie with lots of style. Using titles, he cleverly tells the audience the name of every location and every witness (there are a lot) to show just how public the kidnappers were when they were keeping the kid hostage.
Overall, "Alpha Dog" succeeds in telling the story of an unplanned crime gone horribly wrong in a sometimes overly showy and erratic but always entertaining manner.
Grade: 2 out of 5