THE OPENING SCENE of Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog is a little groan inducing—several young, white pseudo-thugs lift weights and posture about, acting as tough as possible. My first impression was that Cassavetes had failed miserably; his "thugs" were utterly unconvincing.
But within 10 or 15 minutes, it became apparent that the director actually nailed his goal—the actors aren't playing street thugs. They're playing bored, privileged suburban kids who've watched too many hiphop videos, and who've easily built up a pot-dealing empire in a safe, white-bread LA suburb.
From this premise, Cassavetes weaves an engaging tale of drug slinging, violence, fear, and youthful stupidity. Alpha Dog is based on the true story of young criminal Jesse James Hollywood; since Hollywood was caught during the making of the movie, Cassavetes was forced to reshoot and recut parts of the film. Sadly, this gives the film an uneven quality, where more deliberate editing and focus would have gone a long way.
But story aside, it's the performances that carry the film. Emile Hirsch plays lead character Johnny Truelove, and Six Feet Under's Ben Foster knocks one out of the park as an unhinged, speed-addicted white supremacist. But the real star of film—and this surprised me as much as it'll surprise you—is one Justin Timberlake (or "JT," as my editor invariably refers to him), who steals the show with a performance that offers comic relief and a dose of human compassion. And a tight tank top.
Which leads to the most perplexing thing about Alpha Dog—a distressing lack of sex scenes. It takes more than a suspension of disbelief to think that anyone could be in the same room with JT and not rip his clothes off. And yet that doesn't happen a single time in Alpha Dog, a film filled with nubile young actors and actresses, and a whole lot of booze and pot. What is this, bizarro world?