There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
Frank Whaley has appeared in at least 20 movies, most with high profiles (“Pulp Fiction,” “Broken Arrow”), but he works quietly, insinuating himself into a scene instead of stealing it. Only in the last couple of years have I started to notice his work, as he moved up to leads playing a certain type: the helpful, self-effacing, flattering new arrival in your life who wants to take it over. In “Swimming With Sharks” (1995), he was the new personal assistant to a powerful, obnoxious producer (Kevin Spacey). Now, in “Homage,” he plays Archie, a strange young man with a Ph.D. in math who applies for a summer job as an assistant on a New Mexico ranch. Imagine his excitement when he discovers that Katherine, the ranch owner (Blythe Danner), is being visited by her daughter Lucy (Sheryl Lee), who plays the lead in a trash TV show.
The show is named “Banyon's Band.” She plays a detective who's a hooker and works with four street kids to solve crimes. Archie is a student of the series, and also of the low-budget soft-core films Lucy has made, which he studies in the privacy of his room. To the mother, Archie looks like a real find (“I'll balance your soil”). Lucy is not so sure. As she hangs around the house, wearing see-through blouses and getting drunk, Archie tries to insinuate himself. He's writing a screenplay, he confides, that's just for her. Whaley is scary in this role. He delivers the kind of smooth, well-practiced compliments that mark anger and envy--and lust, in this case. He eavesdrops a lot. He knows that Katherine and Lucy do not have a happy relationship, that Lucy has been off drugs four months but is drinking heavily, that Katherine is exhausted by the emotional demands of her troubled daughter. And Archie thinks, foolishly, that since the three of them are on a ranch miles from nowhere, maybe Lucy will want to become his lover, or maybe Katherine. She's good-looking, and a true groupie will settle for proximity if the real thing isn't reachable.
The celebrity stalker plot could have generated tension and suspense, but the director, Ross Kagan Marks, and the writer, Mark Medoff, have decided to make the movie unnecessarily artsy by starting with the climax and working back.
Someone is killed in the opening shots. We know the victim, and the killer, and so the movie becomes a flashback rather than a developing crisis. That can work, but it doesn't work here, and it denies Whaley the opportunity to conceal his sinister side, since the secret is out. There are two key supporting characters. Bruce Davison, always persuasive, is the hard-boozing local public defender who once loved Katherine himself, and Danny Nucci is the Mexican-American jail guard. Archie, described in a news report as a “demented Einstein,” practices his sarcasm on both of them: He's a verbal bully who wants to find out how far he can push them, and does. Medoff, who wrote “Children of a Lesser God,” adapted this screenplay from his play “The Homage That Follows.” I don't know if the play used the same flashback structure, but the theater depends more on performance than story, so it would have been less distracting there. The play also would have been spared Marks' flash-cuts of coming events, which are a distraction.
Intact at the center of the film are the performances: Whaley, creepily ingratiating; Lee, depressed and angry, and Danner, who in a way enjoys having a fan, since her daughter has so many. If this material had been untangled and told from beginning to end, I think it would have added up to more. I have nothing against movies that begin at the end (consider “Citizen Kane”), but they need to earn that technique instead of simply using it to add a little art where none is needed.
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