Who let these ‘Dogs’ out?

“Alpha Dog”Universal PicturesWritten and directed by Nick CassavetesStarring: Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Amanda Seyfried and Bruce WillisRated R/117 minutesOpened Jan. 12, 2007Two out of four stars

If MySpace is any indicator, then the weepy cheesefest “The Notebook” is the favorite movie of every single 18-to-29-year-old female on the Internet. And I mean every single one.

Nick Cassavetes is the man responsible for this. Take it up with him. But now that he’s conquered the hormonal-college-women market, he’s gone to the other end of the spectrum-namely, 18-to-29-year-old men-in the overblown concoction that is “Alpha Dog.”

In order to reach its target demographic, the film needed the following elements: testosterone, gats, blunts, hoochies and middle-class macho thug posturing.

All wrapped around the ever-popular “based on a true story” label.

The result is something that might be exactly what it intended to be, but which strains so hard to get there that it loses all credibility. “Alpha Dog” desperately wants to be the cool one at the party-like that one guy from high school who started walking, talking and dressing like guys he saw in music videos-but it’s easy to see through its faade.

In a way, the movie takes on the image of its characters. These are rich white kids from the San Fernando Valley who take on the persona of hip-hop artists and Hollywood gangsters immortalized on MTV. The problem, from the movie’s standpoint, is that Cassavetes doesn’t know how to separate his movie from his characters. The characters don’t know how stupid they look-but the audience does and Cassavetes should, too. But he doesn’t. “Alpha Dog” is every bit as obsessed with its macho image as its lead character, Johnny Truelove.

Truelove is based on real-life former fugitive Jesse James Hollywood, a rich teen drug dealer who was on the run for five years for the murder of a teenage boy.

Emile Hirsch plays Truelove as overwhelmed and paranoid. When one of his clients, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), fails to pay up on his mounting debt, Truelove decides to kidnap his younger brother, Zack, for ransom.

Zack, unhappy with his home situation already, is more than willing to hang out with Johnny, Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and a glut of rich teenage girls all too eager to deflower him. For Zack, the experience is a welcome escape. But things spiral wildly out of control as rumors start swirling about the kidnapping.

Where the story goes shouldn’t be surprising-the point isn’t necessarily in the resolution of the plot. As annoying as Cassavetes’ pretension is, the film practically lives and dies by its performances. No matter how off-base the script is, actors can make or break anything.

Hirsch is fine in the lead, but ultimately nondescript. Justin Timberlake gives the best performance in the film because he creates the most human character. He lives and breathes his lifestyle, but Timberlake-in one of his first major roles-expresses a great unconscious fear and humanity that stands out among many of the other actors’ shallow overacting.

Ben Foster (“Six Feet Under,” “Hostage”) is the biggest problem of all as the drug-addled, vengeful brother. His portrayal is so far out of touch with reality that it undermines the likes of Hirsch and Timberlake. He’s like an unrestrained Sean Penn loaded up on mescaline and Red Bull, with twice the manic intensity and half the talent. It’s the most desperate overacting I’ve seen in a long time.

And then there’s the kid brother himself, played by Anton Yelchin, for whom I’ll say this: He’s got the innocent look the filmmakers were looking for. In that respect, he’s a natural. But people really need to stop casting this kid in movies. He can’t act; he speaks his lines in that Keanu-esque way that makes it seem like he’s reading from a teleprompter.

Anyway, the casting is hardly the film’s greatest problem. Maybe the problem is that Nick Cassavetes isn’t even a shadow of his father, the great John Cassavetes (before “The Notebook,” he did the repulsive “John Q”).

His “Alpha Dog” is far too concerned with what it’s pretending to be and not nearly concerned enough with providing any insight into its characters’ lives.

“I’m bringing sexy back…with all these sweet tats…I’m so gangsta…actually, these wash off in the shower…I’m not a real man…”

“Thirteen? I had my first threesome at age 10. You guys aren’t even as hot as my mom’s friends.” Anton Yelchin does his best Matt Dillon in “Wild Things” impersonation in “Alpha Dog.”