A Big Nothing

'Lords of Dogtown' fails due to an unfocused screenplay, wooden performances

For those who didn't care enough to go the documentary route with Dogtown and Z-Boys, Lords of Dogtown might be an interesting enough diversion. For those who have seen this story already in its true form, the new movie from the director of Thirteen might feel a little shallow and silly.

This is a movie that figures it is doing an adequate job of capturing '70s surfer-skating culture by having the actors grow long hair and punctuate nearly every sentence with "bro" or "dude." In actuality, Dogtown often feels like a parody of these people rather than a realistic take on their rise to fame and eventual hard knocks. At times, it has the feel of a That '70s Show episode.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Dogtown tells the story of the Z-Boys, pioneers of the skateboarding world who used to sneak into people's backyards and steal board rides in empty swimming pools. Hardwicke and her stunt doubles make those rides fun to watch, and the movie has enough of them to keep enthusiasts amused.

Where the film goes afoul is with its dramatics, often horribly handled by a cast of young actors. Emile Hirsch and Michael Angarano, who have been very good in prior ventures, seem out of place in the mid '70s. Hirsch, very obviously, plays the "bad" Z-Boy, doing his exaggerated takes on being high and drunk while sporting a forced grimace for most of the film. By the time he shaves his head, it's pretty comical.

Almost keeping the film afloat is Heath Ledger as Skip, owner of the infamous Zephyr surfboard shop. Saddled with a mouthful of fake teeth, Ledger delivers the kind of weird, without-a-net performance the rest of the film lacks. His approach is bizarre, but it's bizarre enough to work, and his presence in the film is missed when the story goes elsewhere.

The film doesn't really seem to know what story it is trying to tell. Is it a story of corporate greed and how that greed can destroy friendships? Is it a story about the joys of the freewheeling life of a boarder, be it on the water or on cement? Is it a story about how young girls dig guys with awesome balance and allow said guys to autograph their asses? The screenplay lacks focus, and ultimately amounts to a big nothing.

John Robinson, who played a quiet and responsible teenager in Gus Van Sant's excellent Elephant, plays the quiet and responsible Z-Boy, Stacy. Robinson fares better than some of his counterparts because he looks right for the role, and seems a little more relaxed and at home in the surroundings.

Rebecca De Mornay goes down in flames as Philaine, Ray's unhinged mother. Her role is stereotypical, and she doesn't make the most of her few scenes. Thirteen's Nikki Reed shows up in a supporting role, basically playing the character she portrayed in that movie transported to the seventies.

By the time the Z-Boys get together for one last ride in an empty pool, we're supposed to feel some sentiment for these guys, but the truth is that the movie preceding this moment doesn't do enough to establish these characters as ones to care about. They are cardboard cutouts that lack dimension and development.

Some quick footage of the real Z-Boys doing their thing at the end of the credits reminds that the documentary, a much better take on this story, is in existence and currently out on DVD. As for Lords of Dogtown, it doesn't provide enough reason for its existence, and takes an elbow scraping digger on the cement. It's not a very good movie, bro.

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