A true story about drug-addled youths committing crimes of breathtaking stupidity, Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog instantly recalls Bully, an underrated black comedy about more or less the same subject, directed by Kids helmer Larry Clark. The crucial difference between the two is perspective: Bully mines uneasy laughs from the immense gulf between its morally vacuous conspirators and those in the audience who understand right from wrong. But Alpha Dog doesn't seem to have any feelings about its characters' misdeeds one way or another—it's intermittently bemused or tragic, but utterly lacking a conscience or a point of view. The characters offer plenty of avenues into this story, from a young drug dealer who tries to summon the moxie to cover up his essential weakness, to a willful victim who treats his abduction like a summer-camp bacchanal. But writer-director Cassavetes never picks a direction, so his look at a pointless tragedy wallows in pointlessness.
Loosely based on the alleged crimes of Jesse James Hollywood, currently awaiting trial for his alleged abduction and murder of a 15-year-old kid, Alpha Dog centers on Emile Hirsch, a wealthy dealer carrying on the business of his father, Bruce Willis. Cassavetes presents Hirsch as a snarling tough-talker perceived as more bark than bite by others, including Ben Foster, a vicious neo-Nazi junkie (and telemarketer!) who refuses to settle his overdue debts. One lazy afternoon in San Fernando Valley, Hirsch and cohort Justin Timberlake spot Foster's kid brother (Anton Yelchin) and rashly decide to kidnap the boy as collateral. This isn't the smartest idea, and things almost immediately turn desperate when the authorities get involved. Meanwhile, Yelchin couldn't be more grateful to his keepers for letting him dine at their generous buffet of pot, booze, and loose women, but the party eventually comes to a dreadful end.
Borrowing the worst tendencies from his father John (A Woman Under The Influence), whose raw melodramas made him the godfather of independent film, Cassavetes tries to amplify the tension by having his actors scream at each other for two hours. Some of them are up for the challenge, especially Foster, whose combustible energy and humor feed off the absurdly ripe conception of his character, but there are embarrassing turns, too, including Sharon Stone sobbing in pancake makeup as Yelchin's mother, and a special appearance by Alan Thicke. For an untrained actor, Timberlake acquits himself reasonably well in quieter moments, but Cassavetes provides precious few of them, and even they can seem as overwrought as the noisy, profane clutter surrounding them. All the bright colors Cassavetes splashes on the canvas don't make Alpha Dog art.