PLOT: A nerdy young black man trying to survive the mean streets of Inglewood, L.A., comes into possession of a large stash of drugs - and that's just one of the extreme experiences he undergoes in the stretch of a few chaotic days.
REVIEW:DOPE is poised to be the sleeper hit of the summer, and I can understand why. It offers a little something to everyone, comes loaded with enough energy to blow up a can of Red Bull, has a kickin' soundtrack full of memorable 90s hip-hop and boasts a charismatic cast of newcomers/future stars. It also brings with it plenty of cred from both the indie circuit (it was a hit at Sundance) and "the streets" (Pharrell Williams and Sean Combs are producers), so you can expect theaters to be packed with every ethnicity - and indeed, in light of the horrible events in South Carolina this week, that can't be a bad thing.
All this to say, I'm rooting for DOPE, even as I find it a very imperfect film. It's a fun movie, to be sure, but also a messy one, with too many diversions and subplots to really stick home its central points. Furthermore, its characters win us over early on but eventually make some decisions that are hard to sympathize with. I appreciate what the movie is attempting even while I wish I could go back in time and tell writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (THE WOOD) that his script needs some revisions. If he could have narrowed down his admittedly zealous vision just a tad, he might have ended up with a modern classic of urban comedy. As it is, he falls just short, although DOPE can still be considered something of a victory.
The focus is Malcolm (Shameik Moore, very likable) a bright, nerdy black kid stranded in the calamitous L.A. neighborhood of Inglewood, where Bloods lurk on every corner looking to rob your bike and getting hit by a stray (or intended) bullet is almost a natural part of life. To say Malcolm doesn't fit in is understating things. Rocking a hi-top fade, playing in a band with two like-minded outcasts (Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons) and obsessed with getting into Harvard, Malcolm sticks out like a sore thumb on these mean streets, which makes him a target for just about every bully and wannabe gangsta around. To Malcolm's credit, he's not trying to impress anybody but himself, but that still might not get him into the Ivy League; he's told he's "arrogant" for aiming so high by a teacher. Malcolm seemingly can't win, and is on the verge of becoming just another statistic in his 'hood.
That is, until a hectic set of circumstances conspire to change his fortunes. First a local hustler named Dom (ASAP Rocky) takes a shine to him and invites him to his birthday bash, where he dances with cuties, witnesses a shooting and subsequently ends up with a bagful of ecstasy. Then, almost equally as unlikely (in his world), a beautiful young woman named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) takes an interest in him, primarily because he's not like the other guys in her orbit. Malcolm will also come into contact with drug dealers of both high and low standing, be chased multiple times, almost lose his virginity and, most crucially, come close to losing sight of who he really is.
DOPE, at first, has the kinetic energy of urban comedies like FRIDAY and HOUSE PARTY, where a billion different brushes with death and eccentric oddballs all amount to the bettering of the central characters. It's compelling for a while but it often gets a bit too out-of-hand, with maybe one wacky incident too many. When he's not peppering his movie with all sorts of disparate references (from the names of famous 90s hip-hop artists to Neil Degrasse Tyson to Molly Ringwald), Famuyiwa is crafting showy set-pieces utilizing every trick in the book, from freeze-frames to rewinds to title cards, and on. DOPE has the impulsive and cocky swagger of a new kid on the block's debut feature, but Famuyiwa is in his 40s; he's just honing a new skill set. His dialogue is both clever and very un-PC, and his cast is more than up to the challenge of traversing its intricacies (Moore is really terrific, as is Revolori, a long way from the Grand Budapest Hotel). Not all of it lands; more than a few conversations think they're funnier than they actually are (a white person begging to use the N-word comes to mind), but by and large there's enough crackle in them to engage us.
But I felt quite conflicted about DOPE upon leaving the theater. For one thing, it sends a very mixed message about the actions of its protagonists in the second half. In the name of not spoiling the surprises, I won't get into the details, but what is supposed to come across as a victory for Malcolm at the end feels tainted, especially when the film does some last-minute speechifying (in a sequence that can certainly be labeled Spike Lee-esque). Famuyiwa certainly wants us to think hard about Malcolm's difficult choices concerning his drug stash, but does he want us to applaud the end result? DOPE's third act is meant to be provocative but, for me, it also harms what came before it.
So DOPE is indeed a mixed bag, fun for stretches but undoubtedly all over the place. I'll definitely give it points for thinking way outside the box, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve and for providing a superb soundtrack. What I can't do is ignore the bad feeling in my mouth as I walked out of it. DOPE will lead to a lot of conversations this summer, and I'll be very eager to participate.
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