Dope (2015) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence-all involving teens
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, Zoe Kravitz, A$ap Rocky (Rakim Mayers), Blake Anderson, Quincy Brown, Chanel Iman, Roger Guenveur Smith, Kimberly Elise, Meith Stanfield, Bruce Beatty, Tyga, Forest Whitaker (voice)
Small role (voices): Rick Fox
Director: Rick Famuyima
Screenplay: Rick Famuyima

Review published June 19, 2015

Dope is so potent at times, and so rough around the edges, that you'll be surprised to learn that it hasn't been made by a young and ambitious first-timer in the movie-making business.  Au contraire, as its writer-director, Rick Famuyima, celebrated his 42nd birthday just before the release date of Dope, and he's been making films for nearly 20 years, including some glossy rom-coms like Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding.  It's good to see that ambitious passion projects can still be made well into a director's career.

Shameik Moore ("The Get Down", "Incredible Crew") stars as Malcolm, a geeky high school senior with Harvard aspirations living in "The Bottoms", one of the toughest neighborhoods in Inglewood, California.  When he's not trying to avoid crossing the paths of troublemakers, he's spending time with his best friends Diggy (Clemons, "Eye Candy") and Jib (Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) playing in their pop-punk band, or diving head first into 1990s hip-hop, including sporting the high-top fade hair style and colorful fashion of the "Yo! MTV Raps" era.

One day, Malcolm runs into one of those troublemakers he typically avoids, a drug dealer named Dom (A$ap Rocky), and ends up trying to play matchmaker between him and a local beauty that Malcolm himself has a thing for, Nakia (Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road). Nakia's one condition for seeing Dom results in Malcolm and friends being invited to Dom's birthday bash at a local club.  A botched drug deal leads Dom to stash his supply of MDMA (aka, molly, aka, ecstasy) in Malcolm's backpack, which some murderous gangsters want back. Malcolm is told by an incarcerated Dom that he can, under no circumstances, give it to them, leaving his life in jeopardy until he can find a safe way to appease all of the interested parties involved.

Bolstered by a blistering soundtrack that is surprisingly robust and varied (executive producers include Sean Combs and Pharrell Williams, the later also serving as the film's music supervisor), even if it concentrates on 1990s hip-hop, Famuyima weaves in and out between frivolous teen comedy and violent drug thriller elements, embracing conventions while also breaking stereotypes, and delivering relevant social commentary in the middle of just plain goofy fun. As a result, there is Famuyima does tend to have difficulty balancing the film's tone, and the movie does often play quite uneven, following up scenes that are acute and poignant with sophomoric and hackneyed ones better left to the cutting room floor. The acting is also all over the map, with som surprisingly good moments, and others feeling awkward, probably because the cast also struggled with what tone they are supposed to employ from scene to scene.

Though it could have been a gimmick, the embracing of the 1990s, as well as punk music and alternative beliefs, not only gives the main trio their own identity, eschewing being just another person following the same path, but also gives the film its main theme of not judging someone based solely on their race or the neighborhood they come from.  In should be noted that Malcolm doesn't just embrace hip-hop, but it is East Coast hip-hop, completely different than the gangsta rap that permeated much of the music and style from South Central Los Angeles during the 1990s.  Breaking up the notion of a monolithic segment of society, there's just as much complexity of identity in the hood of Inglewood as there is in any other part of the country, though, it's just as interesting to note, that even though Malcolm is defiant in not succumbing to the insidious pressures of gangs and drugs all around him, he has a hard time not getting caught up in "slippery slope" despite all of his best efforts.

Although I enjoyed the headier elements that comment directly on identity and prejudice, what keeps me from wholeheartedly embracing Dope is its uninteresting main plot involving internet drug dealing using Bitcoin. The more this exceedingly farfetched scheme is explained, the less interest I have in what's going on, leading to diminishing returns for the movie's second half, as things begin to come to a head.  Though often unfocused, Famuyima does manage to bounce back with a stronger finale, though a scene in which Malcolm breaks the fourth wall in order to spell out the on of the movie's themes seems a bit preachy and unnecessary. 

It's quite a rollicking odyssey, but, like most works of great ambition, while it may not succeed to hit its high notes for the entire duration, the fact that it manages to hit them with resonance when it does makes Dope a pretty dope movie for those who are interested in the more penetrating satirical subtext beneath the gratuitous gun displays and broader comedic gags.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo