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alphadog5I don’t need a calendar to tell me when January has arrived. I have a special sense that has nothing to do with the weather or the Christmas trees left on the curb. I can tell by the movies that get released. It’s the dog days of the movie biz, a time when movie studios empty out their closets and quietly release oddball movies.

Some are so bad that they don’t actually get released… they escape, while most fall into the ho-hum category and would make better rentals than theatrical releases. Such a movie is Alpha Dog that features pop star Justin Timberlake as a tough guy who lives with his father.

Directed by Nick Cassavetes, who romanced audiences with The Notebook a couple of years ago, Alpha Dog is based on the true story of a young thug with the unlikely name of Jesse James Hollywood. Hollywood and cohorts—all renamed for the movie—impulsively kidnap the brother of a psychopathic drug runner who owes them money. Without a firm plan the kidnapping doesn’t go as planned and panic sets in.

It’s an odd little movie. One that seems to on one hand condemn the thug lifestyle portrayed by these suburban wannabes while at the same time exploiting it by throwing in many scenes of violence and nudity. Like the great cheesy exploitation flicks of the 50s and 60s Alpha Dog tries to portray a certain kind of morality, while offering up plenty of examples of how NOT to behave. It makes for kind of a schizophrenic viewing experience.

Also odd is Cassavetes’s decision to frame the movie as a documentary. It starts with an interview with the main character’s drug dealer father (well played by Bruce Willis), and unnecessarily flits back and forth between the story and the documentary elements. The story stands on its own and doesn’t need these intrusions that don’t really accomplish much except to take the viewer out of the story.

But no one is going to see this movie for its morality or style choices. The audience for this movie, and the reason, I suspect that it didn’t go straight to video is Justin Timberlake. His big screen debut, Edison, only earned a limited release in Europe and a half-hearted DVD release in the rest of the world, but that was before his last album went stratospheric and his relationship with Cameron Diaz became hot gossip. I’d bet Universal is banking on his audience to put bums in seats for this movie.

Timberlake acquits himself well enough in the movie, although as I watched I couldn’t help but wonder why he seems to be drawn to roles that seem so inappropriate for him. In Edison he played a tough guy reporter, here he plays a suburban wannabe gangster who has probably watched Scarface one too many times. He’s a charismatic performer, so he gets by in both these films relatively unscathed, but next time I’d like to see him play toward his strengths and perhaps do a romantic comedy or at least something with a lighter touch.

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