TAKE ONE: In (Somewhat Reluctant) Praise of Justin Timberlake

By Brian Abrams

My 14-year old cousin raves about his new movie on her MySpace page. The girlfriend is anxious to see it, as she grooves daily to his latest LP on the road. Even Rolling Stone’s film critic Peter Travers described his character as “a pot smoking bad ass” in its most recent issue.

Everyone’s mad about Justin Timberlake, and it’s not just his obvious girlie fan base for bringing sexy back. It’s a surprise alone that the former ‘N Sync boy has acting skills, but I never in my life would have thought the guy so universally appealing on the big screen.

In the ensemble production Alpha Dog, J.T. plays Frankie Ballenbacher, an over-privileged twenty-something punk who lounges around all day at his father’s posh pad in the valley. There, he clips forest green pieces of bud from the old man’s trees in the backyard, bongs out with his bratty friends, and plays Xbox until dusk.

That’s about the time he chills at the house owned by Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), his goateed peer with a big dope-slinging operation and an even bigger Napoleon complex. At Truelove’s, all kinds of sticky-icky gets smoked – and then some. When a spun-out speed freak name Jake Mazursky (a frightening Ben Foster) has a $1,200 payment long overdue, Truelove is set on revenge.

With Frankie and a couple other bratty goons, Truelove snatches Mazursky’s lovable 15-year old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). He doesn’t demand ransom from the Mazursky family, nor does he take it out on little Zacky physically. Truelove basically assigns Frankie to babysitting the kid, which inadvertently includes taking him to “Fiesta” in Palm Springs, getting him high, and hooking him up with SoCal sweeties.

Alpha Dog has an abundance of overacting and knee-jerk shock-valued moments – from Jake kicking the crap out of a throng of kids at a party to Truelove’s crew gyrating and posing for the camera. Though Hirsch’s Truelove is awfully convincing as an arrogant yet horribly insecure little shit, the film overall doesn’t strike the right nerve. Director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, John Q) asks the audience for a visceral reaction rather than an emotional one based on intellect, passing Alpha Dog off as a crime thriller instead of a portrait of youth’s sense of fragility and self-destruction.

Instead we get a pretty boy rendition of Reservoir Dogs but without the memorable soundtrack.

But thank our boy JT for putting the Brad Pitt-Snatch theory into play. The possibility that one actor’s talent is capable enough to salvage everyone else’s performance – and the movie – isn’t exclusive, apparently, to Pitt’s sketchy traveler.

While the entire cast stays in a groveling, moping sort of wigger tough guy state, Timberlake shows us a gamut of emotion. Sure, he’s hardcore when pumping weights with the crew or calling his blondie girlfriend a stupid bitch, but a softer side to his Frankie comes out when he develops a bond with Zack. He suffers the most profound internal conflict throughout the abduction, or at least is the only one who shows it to the camera.

I guess the gangsta-wannabe genre is about as commonplace as any for a hip-hop artist to get his or her filmic start, but Timberlake belongs in way better movies than Alpha Dog. If his compelling performance proves anything, Frankie Ballenbacher is just the beginning.

TAKE TWO: Alpha Dog - Pure Pot Propaganda?

By Steve Bloom

Nick Cassavetes clearly couldn't resist making a movie about the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a 20-year-old pot dealer who kidnapped the younger brother of a deadbeat customer/friend and then ordered the 15-year-old's murder. Hollywood, renamed Johnny Truelove in Cassavetes' film Alpha Dog and portrayed convincingly by Emile Hirsh, fled the U.S. after the killing. While four accomplices have been convicted and are serving sentences, Hollywood's case is still pending.

The movie begins with Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis) being grilled by police. When he's asked if he was his son's weed supplier, Sonny gets belligerant and takes the fifth.

Cut to the first of numerous pot-party scenes, where Truelove and his friends blow joints and suck back bong hits. One of the friends, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), is the chief instigator.

After Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) welshes on a $1,200 debt and threatens him at a party, Truelove stumbles on a strategy: They grab Mazursky's kid brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), who's happens to be walking by himself in the nearby desert. Zach takes to Truelove and his buds like Patti Hearst took to Cinque and the Symbionese Liberartion Army. Zach, blindfolded at first, is ultimately shown a good time, especially by Frankie, who has a soft spot for the kid the way Jack Nicholson had for Randy Quaid in The Last Detail.

At Frankie's girlfriend's house, they trim freshly cut buds from a garden in the backyard. She knows something's very wrong with Zach being held in custody, but everyone else parties instead, damn the consequences.

As the kidnapping continues and Truelove learns that he could face life in prison, he decides to off Zach. Frankie disagrees, but can't stop it.

Except for Truelove, they'll all caught pretty quickly. He vanishes for five years before being nabbed in Brazil.

Alpha Dog is ripe for a Partnership for a Drug-Free America broadside: "See, this is what pot does to young people - it makes them violent. It makes them resolve problems with guns and kill people."

More so, Alpha Dog is yet another reminder of how the drug war creates criminals. If pot's not illegal, Truelove doesn't need to resort to a kidnapping. In fact, he wouldn't be selling weed at all. Legalize it and put the petty drug criminals out of business. I'm not quite sure this is what Cassavetes had in mind, but I hope he did.