Alpha Males Experiment
When Hard Work Pays Off

Note: the following review was written in 2009 when Alpha Males Experiment was on the festival circuit under the title Knuckle Draggers. The film recently found distribution under its revised title.

The spirit of Barry Levinson is apparently alive and well… and living in L.A.

A cadre filmmakers led by east coast expatriates has been working together on low-budget projects for a number of years and has now turned out a romantic comedy as engaging (and still relatively wholesome and endearing!) as anything I’ve seen since, frankly, Diner.  The ensemble cast is led by producers Paul J. Alessi (raised in Queens) and Amie Barksy (New Jersey); crewmembers Reuben Steinberg (cinematography) and writer/director Alex Ranarivelo are veterans of several Alessi/Barksy-produced films; and also along for more than their first ride with the producers are supporting players Brandon Olive, Karrie MacLaine, James D. Owens… and others, I’m sure.

To date, Alessi and Barsky’s oeuvre has been shorts; but clearly, they’ve not only been learning the ropes as they’ve worked their way up to their first feature-length production, they’ve also been having fun and building up a solid core of professionals with whom to work consistently.  That investment has paid off, and the newcomers to the crew blend in seamlessly.  I wouldn’t mind working with these folks, either, if I were in the biz—and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a lot more of these characters.

Paul J. Alessi as Kyle in Knuckle Draggers

I also expect I’ll be watching Knuckle Draggers a few more times over the years.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to as well!

At the center of the story (set in “2009 A.D.”) is Ethan Alexander, a film school grad looking for his first “real” directing gig—and frustrating the hell out of his schoolteacher girlfriend Heather.  When the “professional intern” screws up yet another drone-job interview because of his indecisiveness (and plans to pursue a less stable, if exciting, feature film career), Heather walks out on him.  To fill the void, in swoops Ethan’s New Yorker brother Kyle, filled with all sorts of ideas about what’s wrong with Ethan—and also full of not-so-helpful theories about what evolutionary Neanderthals men and women are at heart.  “If you’re going to get emotional,” he tells Ethan, “just don’t do it in public.”

Ethan’s plan?  Get Heather back by trying out some of Kyle’s cockamamie advice.  Kyle’s plan?  Get Ethan to give up on Heather, whose only potential as a mate is emasculationary.  The compromise?  If Ethan manages to bed one conquest, using Kyle’s techniques, Kyle will help him win back Heather.

Kyle’s nemesis in this scheme is Patricia, the girlfriend of a rockstar-wannabe who’s part of Ethan’s circle of friends.  She’s on to Kyle’s patter, not exactly disagreeing with him but poking holes in the not-so-logical ends to which the knuckle-dragger theory must extend.  Kyle and Patricia are played by producers Alessi and Barsky, and it’s easy to see why they like to work together—and why they’ve managed to attract successively better backing with each project.  There’s a real chemistry between them, especially as antagonists, and they are both excellent actors with magnetic screen personae.

With the requisite supporting cast of quirky friends and a foregone conclusion or two driving the central narrative arcs, Knuckle Draggers is not exactly mindblowingly original—but the characters that inhabit the stock plot framework are, and the film is mindblowingly entertaining nonetheless.  Director Ranarivelo is consistently inventive in his staging, and his script offers just the right blend of zingers and creative transitions.  I was amazed, for instance, when Ethan pulled over to the curb to take a cell call—and the occasion turned into a significant plot point key to the film’s comedic narrative resolution.

In an era when “romantic comedy” means “inspired by Something About Mary and taking it three or four steps too far further,” it’s refreshing to watch a film that understands “R-rated” doesn’t have to mean “vulgar” or “tawdry.”  Sure, these characters are L.A. film-scene denizens, so don’t expect Ward and June Cleaver.  But neither are they the juvenile adults populating Judd Apatow productions, the shallow, sickening parodies Henry Jaglom shared with us in Hollywood Dreams, or the Kevin Smith-styled porndogs of In Search of a Midnight Kiss. 

For better or worse, Alessi, Barsky, and Ranarivelo have put together a film that is very mainstream and mature in its sensibilities without flinching from the stupider aspects of romantic behavior.  I’m sure it won’t be edgy enough for a lot of the younger set—but to me, that’s a breath of fresh air.

And now, I’m off to dig up the short films of Alessi and Barksy… and looking forward to seeing more of them and their crew.

Knuckle Draggers is unrated, but between the smattering of Neanderthal language, sexual situations, and general subject matter, this is pretty clearly R-rated material—in very much the same way that Diner was R-rated.

Courtesy of the film’s producers, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Knuckle Draggers.  The film is currently playing the festival circuit.