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by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Alpha Dog & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f the few opinions I offered about Alpha Dog around the ol' water cooler this week, none was more controversial than this: Justin Timberlake is fa-han-tah-stic. I didn't expect the comment to raise such a ruckus, but the din amongst my coworkers (insufferable snobs all) was such that I was basically accused of shilling for Timberlake's PR people.

If that reaction is in any way representative of public opinion (I have my doubts), then the world needs me, if for nothing else than to assert once more -- to all of you, in writing -- that Justin Timberlake is really good. Not simply good-for-this-film-good. He's like, good-good.

Despite him, though, a wonderful performance by Ben Foster (frightening as judo-loving, Jewish meth addict Jake Mazursky), and solid writing and directing by the half of writer/director John Cassavetes who isn't a complete hack, the film is totally ruined by whatever portion of Cassavetes actually is a hack.

A quasi-true story, Alpha Dog follows 20-something suburban weed dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) as he tries to manage a drug distribution racket modeled in broad strokes on films like Scarface. He's got the high points (cursing, beating people up, carrying a gun) but lacks a bit of the logistical nuance those films tend to gloss over -- how, for example, to properly hold someone hostage. When Mazursky fails to deliver on some sort of scam Truelove sends him on, Johnny kidnaps his half-brother in lieu of payment. It's technically a ransom situation, but they never really get that far. Truelove and his partner in ganja Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake) struggle with even the small points. Where do you keep the kid when everyone lives with their parents? How do you go about collecting the money?

Set in 1999, it's a telling comedy of errors for the West Coast rap era. These are all middle-class kids living in L.A., very close to the epicenter of rap's (seemingly) most violent practitioners. Enamored with drug dealing's economies of scale, they play at being criminals. Having grown up middle-class, though, they lack any real street smarts. As the film progresses, incompetence mixes with inertia until some really tragic things start happening. On paper, the possibilities for this story are endless.

Maybe that was the sticking point for Cassavetes: the problem of limitless possibilities. Given the choice between steady naturalism, which would point up the tragedy of the circumstances, or the absurdism that would make the story a teeth-gnashing farce, Cassavetes threw up his hands and chose both. Hence we have Timberlake, Foster and, to an extent, Hirsch, playing confused, na & iuml;ve mafiosi while many of the supporting cast go for nothing but hyperbolic laughs.

The tone shifts come faster and faster, until the denouement: Sharon Stone packed into a fat suit alternately cackling and sobbing in a mental ward. Her character at that moment comes to symbolize the entire film: unstable and manic-depressive.

Again, though, the actors who manage to break free of Cassavetes' wildly swinging pendulum turn in great performances.

I've spent a lot of time wrestling with whether to give Alpha Dog a better rating. I think that's me being distracted by its glimmering potential. The actual product is anything but. (Rated R)

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